BELGRADE- Bosnian Serb wartime general Ratko Mladic will face trial on genocide charges in The Hague following his arrest in Serbia after 15 years at large, with European officials expecting his extradition within 10 days.
The arrest on Thursday of Mladic, the last of the three men accused of instigating ethnic cleansing during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, removed a major obstacle to the once pariah state of Serbia becoming a candidate for European Union membership.
"On behalf of the Republic of Serbia I can announce the arrest of Ratko Mladic. The extradition process is under way," Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters in Belgrade.
Mladic, accused of orchestrating the brutal 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in July 1995, was found in a farmhouse owned by a cousin.
"Mladic had two loaded guns he did not use. He was cooperative and did not resist arrest," said Rasim Ljajic, the Serbian minister in charge of the search for fugitive war criminals.
Serbian state television showed video of Mladic, 69, being escorted by police to be interviewed by an investigative judge at the special war crimes court in Belgrade on Thursday. Wearing a baseball cap, he was moving slowly with a slight limp.
"Mladic was dressed in several layers of clothes, he was hardly recognisable, he was not attracting attention. He looked pale as if he hadn't left confined spaces for a very long time," Ljajic said on Serbian television.
Mladic's lawyer later told reporters the court had halted the questioning because his client was "in serious condition. He is hardly responsive". An official described the once burly general as looking disoriented and tired.
"Dead man arrested," ran several Serbian newspaper headlines on Friday, with a picture showing a pale and wizened Mladic.
The deputy war crimes prosecutor said the court would continue to question the old general on Friday.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she expected Mladic to be extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague within nine or 10 days.
Tadic confirmed Mladic, 69, had been detained in Serbia, which for years had said it could not find him.
While his arrest removed a diplomatic thorn from Belgrade's side, the revelation that Mladic was in Serbia, as many had suspected, raises questions as to how he eluded justice for so long.
HERO TO MANY
Mladic, whose Bosnian Serb Army was armed and funded by the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, is still seen as a hero by many Serbs. Milosevic died in 2006 while on trial in The Hague for war crimes.
"This removes a heavy burden from Serbia and closes a page of our unfortunate history," President Tadic said.
The arrest may have come too late to place Mladic jointly on trial alongside former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, the Yugoslavia tribunal's prosecution office said.
Mladic was indicted in 1995 together with Karadzic, who was arrested in July 2008 and went on trial in October 2009. Prosecutors initially wanted to try both men together, but separated the case shortly before Karadzic's trial started.
Frederick Swinnen, special adviser to chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz, said it was too early to say for certain whether the Mladic and Karadzic cases would be rejoined, but added that doing so would also delay the trial of Karadzic.
Russia, which vehemently opposed the 1999 NATO bombing of Milosevic's Serbia and has accused the West in the past of bias against Bosnian Serbs, called for a fair trial for Mladic.
"We are counting on the upcoming judicial process to be fair and unprejudiced and not to be used with the aim of artificially dragging out the activity of the (ICTY)," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The tribunal is scheduled to close down in 2014.
Peter Robinson, one of Karadzic's legal advisers, said that Karadzic regretted the arrest of Mladic.
"Dr. Karadzic is sorry for General Mladic's loss of freedom. He looks forward to working with him to bring out the truth about what happened in Bosnia," Robinson told Reuters by email.
ARRESTED IN VILLAGE
Mladic was arrested in the village of Lazarevo, near the northeastern town of Zrenjanin around 100 km (60 miles) from the capital Belgrade in the early hours, the police official said.
Bosnian Muslim survivors said the news was bittersweet.
"This represents a small bit of justice for my heart, my soul and my pain," said Sabaheta Fejzic, 55, who lost her only son, her husband and many other male relatives in the massacre.
"It's long overdue but better than never. This is, in the end, a good move and it will work towards reconciliation," Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj said.
Many nationalists in Serbia, which was under international sanctions over the war in Bosnia and then bombed by NATO to stop atrocities in Kosovo in 1999, idolise Mladic and condemned the arrest as a blow to Serbian national interests.
Several dozen nationalists and hooligans rallied in downtown Belgrade to protest at the arrest, clashing briefly with police who dispersed them from the main square.
Dozens of people were arrested and injured in 2008 throughout Serbia in riots following the arrest of Karadzic.
Tadic said he would not allow a repeat of such violence.
"This country will remain stable," he said. "Whoever tries to destabilise it will be prosecuted and punished."
Serbia increased security in certain areas of the country, including around foreign embassies, following Mladic's arrest.
Washington and other capitals hailed the arrest, saying Serbia's prospects for progress towards European Union membership had suddenly improved.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose administration brokered the deal that ended the Bosnian war, said: "The capture of Ratko Mladic enables the Bosnian people to close another chapter of one of the most terrifying conflicts of our time.
"As the military commander who systematically carried out brutal atrocities and mass murder, Mladic will finally be held accountable -- to Bosnia and the world," Clinton said. (Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in Rabat, Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam and David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.