After years of denial, Serbian authorities have acknowledged in a secret report that a band of about 50 intelligence and army officials conspired to conceal the movements of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic and provide him refuge.
The report, delivered to the government in January, was prepared by Serbia's military intelligence agency and led to firings and other moves within the country's domestic and military spy agencies, officials say. As a result, they assert, the noose around Mladic has been tightened, although there is no indication he is prepared to give up.
"There is a written document in military intelligence," Defense Minister Zoran Stankovic said in an interview. "The findings might lead to the prosecution of certain people who were in contact with war crimes suspects.
"Those officials were removed from their posts just several months ago. That means that we have just now managed to create circumstances for more efficient and more engaged work" in making an arrest, Stankovic concluded.
Mladic, a general, was commander of Bosnian Serb forces during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, one of four conflicts during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Chief among the allegations against him is that he organized and oversaw the 1995 slaughter of as many as 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys captured in the town of Srebrenica. Serb soldiers transported the victims to isolated spots in eastern Bosnia, killed them and buried them in mass graves.
The European Union has set a deadline for Mladic's capture or surrender by the end of March. The E.U. made membership talks for Serbia, originally planned for April 4, conditional on the delivery of Mladic to the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The E.U. also demanded that Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic be turned over.
U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte is scheduled to visit Belgrade on March 29 and then report to the E.U. on whether Serbia is being diligent in trying to capture Mladic and Karadzic. Serbia's critics in the E.U. say the government is reluctant to move aggressively against a man whom many Serbs view as a nationalist hero.
Serbian officials deny that. On Monday, Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters in Sweden, "We have to finalize this process of collaboration with the E.U., and there is no doubt about it that we have to solve the Mladic problem."
Stankovic played down talk of a deadline but said the Serbian government, including the army, was working to locate Mladic. "You know how hard it is to locate fugitives who have committed worst crimes, terrorism, drug smuggling, even in rich countries that have incomparably better logistics and infrastructure," he said.
Stankovic said that Serbia's domestic intelligence agency was leading the search but that military intelligence and police were assisting. In January, Stankovic took direct control of army intelligence.
Also that month, police arrested two soldiers suspected of directly helping Mladic evade capture. One, Col. Jovo Djogo, is suspected of coordinating efforts to hide Mladic inside the Serb Republic, an autonomous region of Bosnia under ethnic Serb control. Djogo was a representative of the Serb Republic in Belgrade during the Bosnian war.
The other detainee, Sasa Badnjar, was a Bosnian Serb soldier who belonged to Mladic's security team during the war. He is said to have coordinated communication between the fugitive general and his sympathizers.
Serbian officials say Mladic's support network is composed of comrades from his home town in Kalinovik, Bosnia, and from the Ninth Corps of the Yugoslav army, which Mladic commanded in 1991, as well as from military intelligence of the former Yugoslav army. Some of his helpers may still be in the army or intelligence agencies, the officials say.
For years, Mladic moved around openly in Serbia. He was hosted at various military bases in the country. But in 2002, the year the Belgrade government agreed to fully cooperate with The Hague tribunal, he left the base at Gornji Milanovac, about 55 miles south of Belgrade, and disappeared.
His whereabouts since have been the subject of intense speculation. NATO peacekeeping forces and local police have mounted numerous manhunts in the area of Han Pijesak, in Serb-dominated eastern Bosnia. An extensive underground military bunker is located there.
Mladic has been spotted in a restaurant in the town of Pricevici and atop forested Cer Mountain, at the Bosnian border. Cer contains a military base, a Serbian Orthodox monastery and numerous hunting lodges. Residents of the region are known for fierce nationalism. During World War II, Serbs there put up a staunch defense against German invaders. In the postwar period, loyalists of the defunct Serbian monarchy resisted Communist rule.
Atmosphere ripe for surrender?
Last year, the political atmosphere seemed to be ripe for Mladic's surrender after a video of the execution of six Srebrenica prisoners was broadcast in Serbia.
Rumors of Mladic's capture or surrender circulated widely in advance of the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica killings. At the time, Serb officials said they had been negotiating with intermediaries and authorized financial help for Mladic's family if he gave himself up. The United States has offered a $5 million reward for his capture.
This week, the Belgrade daily newspaper Politika reported that investigators had interrogated 20 members who served as security guards for Mladic in the past to try to trace his whereabouts. Politika also reported that the government had "indications" that Mladic had left the country.
Serbian officials say that a team of about 300 intelligence and military operatives is working to find the fugitive. Recently, police searched three apartments in Belgrade where reports said he had been hiding. They were described as filthy rooms filled with cigarette butts, rotten mattresses and gas camp stoves.
Some Serbian officials have gone as far as to suggest that Mladic kill himself and take the burden of capturing him off Serbia.
The recent death of wartime Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in his cell outside The Hague has created new political obstacles to a surrender. Serbs who opposed sending Milosevic to trial were enraged; they would be likely to raise new objections to transferring Mladic. "Milosevic's death makes it all the more difficult for the government," said Nenad Stefanovic, news director at government-operated RTS television.