updated 2/23/2006 4:38:16 PM ET 2006-02-23T21:38:16

The Dutch foreign minister told Parliament on Thursday that he heard in Serbia that war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic is sick and engaged in unspecified negotiations.

Ben Bot, briefing lawmakers about a Monday trip to Belgrade, said top Serbian leaders had told him the former Bosnian Serb wartime commander was ailing and “speaking with associates,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman said.

Spokeswoman Hannah Tijmes described the briefing to The Associated Press but did not describe the topic of the negotiations or provide other details.

Ministry spokesman Dirk Jan Vermeij said Dutch media reports Thursday that Mladic was negotiating his surrender to Serbian authorities were inaccurate.

“The rumor Bot picked up was that Mladic was negotiating with his entourage,” Vermeij said. “The minister said that he heard during meetings in Belgrade that Mladic is sick, but that the Serbs don’t know where he is.”

Ministry officials did not identify Bot’s sources. Bot met with the prime minister, foreign minister and president during his visit to Belgrade Monday, Tijmes said.

Serbia is under intense pressure to hand over Mladic, the second most-wanted fugitive by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Contradictory statements from officials in Belgrade have generated confusion about how close authorities are to capturing Mladic, who has been indicted on genocide charges for allegedly orchestrating the 1995 slaughter of some 8,000 Muslims in the U.N. enclave of Srebrenica in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.

Mladic, 62, is believed to have suffered a mild stroke in 1996 and to have a serious heart condition. He reportedly was hospitalized under various aliases in a Belgrade military hospital three times in the 1990s.

Troops close to Mladic during the Bosnian war also reportedly said he was suffering from kidney trouble.

On Wednesday, security officials in Belgrade told The Associated Press that negotiations for Mladic’s surrender were under way. The Serbian government has denied that Mladic has been detained.

“This is just another example of similar news we’ve seen in these past days, meant to manipulate and impose pressure on the (Serbian) government,” Serbian government spokesman Srdjan Djuric said in Belgrade, dismissing the Dutch media reports.

Serbia under pressure
A Serbian official responded Thursday to new European Union demands to hand over Mladic with more assurances that every effort was being made to capture him.

The EU said that it would freeze negotiations on Serbia-Montenegro’s possible membership in the bloc unless Mladic is delivered to the war crimes tribunal by the end of the month. Serbia could also face EU sanctions if it fails to hand him over.

“We are doing all we can to fulfill this obligation regardless of the pressure and additional deadlines,” said Rasim Ljajic, the head of the Serbian agency in charge of cooperation with the tribunal.

Serbian officials did not specify what action was being taken to arrest Mladic.

EU foreign ministers will decide Monday whether to suspend negotiations designed to draw Serbia closer to the 25-nation bloc and prepare it for eventual membership — a key goal of the Serbian government.

The EU official leading efforts to bring in new member nations, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, said Thursday that entry talks with Belgrade would be frozen if Serbia does not fully cooperate with the tribunal’s hunt for Mladic.

“It is important Serbia’s effort lead to full cooperation without delay,” he said. “It should lead to the arrest and transfer of Mladic.”

Serbian ultranationalist leader Aleksandar Vucic urged Mladic not to surrender.

“The Serb generals cannot be a part of some market trade,” said Vucic, who leads the largest party in Serbia’s parliament. “That is our message to Mladic, if he can hear us.”

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