Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb general held responsible for the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, was arrested on Thursday, signaling Serbia’s intention of finally escaping the isolation it brought on itself during the Balkan wars, the bloodiest in Europe since World War II.
The capture of the former general removes a major obstacle to Serbia’s becoming a member of the European Union, which had insisted that Mr. Mladic be apprehended and turned over for trial in an international court before the country could get on track to join the 27-nation union.
President Boris Tadic of Serbia gave few details in announcing the arrest but promised that Mr. Mladic would be turned over for trial at The Hague within days. “I think today we finished a difficult period in our recent history,” he said. For Europeans, buffeted by financial crises, the arrest of their most wanted war crime suspect has a resonance on the magnitude of the killing of Osama bin Laden for Americans. It also amounts to a significant diplomatic victory, suggesting that the incentive of membership in the world’s biggest trading bloc remains a crucial foreign policy tool in the post-cold war world.
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Mr. Mladic had been at large for 15 years, and many European diplomats argued that Serbian officials could have arrested him long ago if they felt that the benefits of opening the door wider to the West outweighed appeals to virulent nationalism among some Serbs, who still regard Mr. Mladic as a hero.
Mr. Mladic was captured in the farming town of Lazarevo north of Belgrade after the authorities received a tip that a man resembling him was residing there. Serbia’s interior minister, Ivica Dacic, said that Mr. Mladic had been found with his own expired identification card and an old military book. Some Serbian news reports said he had been living under the name of Milorad Komadic and had labored as a construction worker. But the Interior Ministry said Thursday that it did not have evidence suggesting he had taken on a false identity.
The massacre at Srebrenica was the worst ethnically motivated mass murder on the European continent since World War II. Mr. Mladic was also accused of war crimes for the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo, in which 10,000 people died, including 3,500 children.
While close associates had predicted that Mr. Mladic would sooner kill himself than face capture, Serbian news media reported that he was alone at the time of his arrest and had two pistols with him that he made no attempt to use. The police said he did not resist arrest. Witnesses said he appeared disoriented and tired, and that one of his hands appeared to be paralyzed, possibly because of a stroke.
Many of the 27 members of the European Union had been in favor of rewarding Belgrade for its recent tilt toward Europe and the United States by advancing its move toward membership in the bloc. But some, especially the Netherlands, had insisted that as long as Mr. Mladic remained free, Serbia could not join the union.
Mr. Mladic’s crimes remained an emotional issue for the Dutch, whose peacekeepers were overrun at Srebrenica, allowing Mr. Mladic’s soldiers to mow down men and boys, their hands tied behind their backs.
“His arrest gives a strong signal to the world that anyone accused of the worst crimes can be brought to justice,” said Serge Brammertz, the prosecutor for the United Nations-based war crimes tribunal in The Hague. He said international pressure to block Serbia’s entry into the European Union was a vital prod that had precipitated the arrest. According to B92, the independent Serbian broadcasting company, residents in Lazarevo said that they were unaware that Mr. Mladic was living among them, but had spotted the police early Thursday at a house reportedly belonging to Mr. Mladic’s relatives. Serbian analysts said Lazarevo had had a large population of Bosnian Serbs since World War II, some of whom would have been sympathetic to Mr. Mladic. They said he had lived in the village for two months.
“Extradition is happening,” President Tadic said, referring to The Hague. “This is the end of the search for Mladic. It’s not the end of the search for all those who helped Mladic and others to hide and whether people from the government were involved.”
Early on Thursday evening, Mr. Mladic appeared in a court in Belgrade, where a judge must decide whether all conditions have been met for Serbia to surrender him to the tribunal. But Mr. Mladic’s lawyer, Milos Saljic, said the court halted its questioning of Mr. Mladic because of his poor health. Prosecutors said the court would continue to question Mr. Mladic on Friday and that he had three days to appeal an adverse ruling by the judge.
Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader and Mr. Mladic’s former boss, is being tried in The Hague on charges of genocide for his role in the Balkan bloodshed. Slobodan Milosevic, the nationalist former president of Serbia and the architect of the war, died in 2006 while his trial was under way.
Mr. Tadic, considered strongly pro-Western in the Serbian context, stressed that the arrest of Mr. Mladic “is happening on the day Catherine Ashton is coming to Serbia,” referring to the European Union’s foreign policy chief. But it was not immediately clear how the Serbian public, which has been suspicious of the West’s demands for trials of Serbs in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, would react to news of the arrest.
As evening descended on Belgrade, witnesses said small clutches of Mladic supporters had arrived near Republic Square. About 500 people also took to the streets of Novi Sad, in northern Serbia, and tried to force their way to a radio and television station, but were held back by riot police. They chanted, “Knife, wire, Srebrenica” — a reference to the Srebrenica massacre — and called for an “uprising” in Serbia.
On Thursday, Ljiljana Smajlovic, president of the country’s Journalists’ Association, said she did not expect widespread unrest to break out as it did when aggressive Serbian nationalists and followers of Slobodan Milosevic held more sway. “The weight of evidence against Mladic is staggering,” Ms. Smajlovic said, “even if Serbs remain unconvinced that the Hague tribunal has been even-handed in its approach to war criminals in the former Yugoslavia.”
“I do not expect that Serbia, because of this arrest, will be destabilized,” Mr. Tadic said. “Whoever tries to make any trouble will end up in court.” He said that the last remaining Serbian fugitive wanted for war crimes, Goran Hadzic , will be arrested as well. Mr. Hadzic is sought in connection with massacres of Croats in Krajina, a majority-Serb section of Croatia that tried to break away in the 1990s.
Some Serbian officials also reacted with anger, illustrating that the country was still struggling to come to terms with the past. Boris Aleksic, a spokesman for the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, said: “Serb traitors have arrested a Serb hero. This shameful arrest of a Serb general is a blow to our national interests and the state.”
The arrest comes at a crucial moment. Serge Brammertz , the chief prosecutor of the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, was expected to release a report in the next few days saying that Serbia was not cooperating with the international effort to apprehend Mr. Mladic. Such a report would have further complicated Serbia’s attempt to become an official candidate for membership in the European Union. Ms. Smajlovic said that the fact that Ms. Ashton was in Serbia for meetings on Thursday would “lead to suspicion that the arrest was timed to honor her and also to underline Serbia now has high expectations of rapid E.U. integration.”
However, the European Union’s struggles to manage financial crises in Greece, Ireland, Spain and elsewhere may present a new obstacle to that goal, with the bloc’s drive to expand slowed in recent months. Some Serbian analysts fear a nationalist backlash if Serbia’s European Union hopes are not realized.
In hiding since 1995, sometimes in plain sight at soccer matches and funerals, and sometimes deep underground in Belgrade, Mr. Mladic was believed for years to be protected by allies in the Serbian military and intelligence services. But he appeared to have spent the last few years with no more than a handful of loyalists to help him, investigators said.
A senior Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the administration had been quietly pushing for Mr. Mladic’s capture for years.
Mr. Mladic’s arrest was welcomed by world leaders, including those gathered in Deauville, France, for the Group of Eight summit meeting. President Obama said in Deauville that the arrest was important for the families of Mr. Mladic’s victims.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the host in Deauville, said the Serbian government had made a “courageous decision” that constituted “another step towards Serbia’s eventual integration into the European Union.”
The arrest was also praised, in more somber tones, by survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and the siege of Sarajevo. “I want to congratulate Europe and Tadic,” said Munira Subasic, head of the Association of Mothers of Srebrenica. “I’m sorry for all the victims who are dead and cannot see this day.”
Dan Bilefsky reported from New York, and Doreen Carvajal from Paris. Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris, and David Rohde from New York.