The European Union on Wednesday suspended aid and trade talks with Serbia over its failure to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, the ex-Bosnian Serb army commander indicted for genocide in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.
Serbia’s deputy prime minister in charge of negotiating possible EU membership resigned to protest what he called his government’s recklessness with the future of its people.
The government “betrayed the most important interest of the country and citizens of Serbia,” Miroljub Labus said.
Labus said Serbia’s security services “searched for Mladic everywhere except where he was hiding. They were not even close. They did not do their job properly.”
Mladic is wanted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, charged in the 1995 slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica. He is thought to be getting protection from hard-liners in the army and his Serb wartime allies.
Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor at the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, said Serbian authorities knew Mladic’s location as recently as 10 days ago and could have arrested him before he disappeared again.
She said Mladic is hiding in the Belgrade region and changing apartments daily, adding that she suspects he is eluding arrest with inside information. She also accused Serbia’s prime minister of misleading her by insisting a month ago that Mladic’s arrest was imminent.
The EU announced it was suspending pre-membership talks because Serbia-Montenegro failed to meet the bloc’s April 30 deadline to deliver Mladic to the U.N. tribunal.
Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said his government had “done absolutely everything in its power” to capture Mladic and send him to the tribunal.
“His entire network has been uncovered. Mladic is now hiding all alone,” Kostunica said in a statement.
‘Ethnic cleansing’ architect
Mladic commanded Bosnian Serb forces during the 1991-95 Bosnian war in which an estimated 200,000 people were killed and millions forced from their homes during fighting notorious for brutal, coordinated “ethnic cleansing” campaigns.
The EU talks with Serbia could be quickly restarted “only if there is dramatic improvement in cooperation” with the U.N. tribunal, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.
“Serbia must show that nobody is above the law and that anybody indicted for serious crimes will face justice,” Rehn said, adding that Serbian forces looking for Mladic “must be fully under democratic control.”
The State Department said Wednesday that the United States supports EU efforts to ensure that Mladic faces justice.
“The United States continues to urge Serbia and Montenegro to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and to arrest and transfer all fugitive indictees; most notably Ratko Mladic,” department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
A call for surrender
In seeming desperation, Kostunica called on Mladic to surrender, saying that “never in our history has the entire state and nation been made to suffer because of one officer.”
“By hiding, Ratko Mladic is inflicting enormous damage to our state and national interests,” the prime minister said.
Cabinet minister Velimir Ilic was more specific about the security services’ problems in getting Mladic.
“We arrested several of his aides and bodyguards and discovered several of his hiding places where he used to hide, but he wasn’t there,” Ilic said. “Certain services shouldn’t have allowed that to happen.”
Promising that the hunt for Mladic will continue, Kostunica said it “is now a technical matter to discover the location where Mladic is hiding.”
But Del Ponte said she was unconvinced Belgrade had a “focused and coordinated plan” for Mladic’s arrest and called Serbia’s handling of the case “unprofessional.”
Saying she “was misled when I was told at the end of March that the arrest of Mladic was a matter of days or weeks,” Del Ponte said any expectation that he could be induced to surrender “is completely unrealistic and simply wrong.”