BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbian authorities tracked down war crimes fugitive Goran Hadzic in the northern mountains Wednesday, arresting the last remaining fugitive sought by the U.N. war crimes court after eight years on the run.
Serbia has been under intense pressure to nab the former leader of Croatia's rebel Serbs during the country's bloody ethnic war. Hadzic is wanted for atrocities stemming from the 1991-1995 conflict, when he fought against Croatia's independence from the former Yugoslavia.
Hadzic's arrest was the final demand of the Hague war crimes tribunal and could boost Serbian hopes of becoming a candidate later this year for eventual entry to the 27-nation European Union.
"It was our moral duty," Serbian President Boris Tadic said in a televised statement Wednesday. "We have done this for the sake of citizens of Serbia, we have done this for the sake of the victims amongst other nations, we have done this for the sake of reconciliation, we have done this for the sake of establishing credibility of all societies, not only Serbian society."
"With this, Serbia, has concluded its most difficult chapter in the cooperation with the Hague Tribunal," Tadic added. "(It has met its) legal duties ... as well as its moral duty" to track down and arrest all war crimes fugitives.
Hadzic, 53, was arrested in the mountainous Fruska Gora region of northern Serbia where his family lives — and where he was seen after the war — but Tadic denied that authorities knew where he had been hiding.
"Serbia did not know where Goran Hadzic was," Tadic said. "Our security and intelligence agency as well as members of the Interior Ministry have carried out their duties in accordance with law."
In the past, Hadzic had narrowly escaped arrest, apparently thanks to tips from within the Serbian security authorities. Serbia's post-war authorities have for years faced accusations that they are not doing enough to hunt down the war crimes suspects.
Hadzic was indicted in 2004 by the Hague tribunal with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including persecuting people "on political, racial or religious grounds, extermination, murder, torture, deportation and forcible transfer" as well as "wanton destruction."
The indictment alleges that Hadzic committed the crimes to drive Croats and other non-Serbs from the territories controlled by his self-styled authorities. More than 10,000 people died in the Croatian war, which ended when Croatia retook the territories held by the Serbs in 1995.
The EU immediately welcomed Wednesday's arrest, saluting "the determination and commitment" of Serbia's government.
"Following the capture of Ratko Mladic, this arrest sends a positive signal to the European Union and to Serbia's neighbors, but most of all on the rule of law in Serbia itself," said a statement by EU president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. "The Serbian nation is in the process of confronting the past and turning the page to a better European future."
Coming less than two months after the capture of Gen. Ratko Mladic, Hadzic's arrest removes a major obstacle to Belgrade's efforts to reintegrate into the international community following years of sanctions and pariah status in the 1990s. Serbia — led at the time by nationalist president Slobodan Milosevic — was widely viewed as the main culprit for the wars in the Balkans.
Milosevic was extradited to the Hague tribunal in 2001 and died there in 2006, while on trial for genocide.
Serbia has also arrested war crimes fugitives Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Both are currently facing war crimes charges in the Hague.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the news of the arrest and commended Serbian authorities.
"Following the transfer of Ratko Mladic to the Hague, this arrest will allow for the most painful chapter in recent European history to be closed," Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement.
"Serbia's future lies in constructive cooperation with its neighbors and the Euro-Atlantic family," he said, adding that the military alliance remains committed to assisting the Balkan region.
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