Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Belgrade denies reports of Mladic arrest

The Serbian government on Tuesday denied media reports that top Bosnian Serb warcrimes fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladic had been arrested.

"The news about Ratko Mladic is not correct. It is a manipulation which damages the government and does not contribute to its efforts to fully complete its cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal," spokesman Srdjan Djuric said.

Djuric was speaking to Reuters by telephone. No official statement had yet been issued.

Serbia's state news agency Tanjug earlier quoted a television station in Bosnia's Serb Republic as saying the wartime Bosnian Serb Army commander was arrested in Belgrade.

TV BN had reported Mladic was being transferred via the Bosnian city of Tuzla to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. An earlier report by Belgrade's "Studio B" television said Mladic had been located "in the area of Tuzla," which lies close to the mountainous border with Serbia.

Independent Belgrade broadcaster B92 said that in spite of Djuric's denial, a number of sources said the 63-year old general had been arrested in Serbia and transferred to Tuzla for a flight to The Hague.

Mladic was indicted in 1995 for genocide for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo which claimed 12,000 lives and for orchestrating the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe since World War Two.

His political boss Radovan Karadzic, indicted on the same charges, is still at large.

Serbian dailies were speculating on Tuesday that Mladic would be on a plane to The Hague before the end of February, in time to avert suspension of European Union association talks with Belgrade.

This is the deadline for a report by EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn to the 25 EU foreign ministers assessing whether Serbia is cooperating fully with the U.N. tribunal.

Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for the U.N. war crimes prosecutor, said they had no information on the reports. "We have no reason to believe any of that ... These are rumors, we cannot comment on something that doesn't exist," she said.

Vladeta Jankovic, adviser to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, said efforts to find Mladic were "in full swing."

"The government is aware of the consequences," he told B92 radio. "It might be a decisive moment, not only for the survival of the government, but for the future prospects of the state."

Mladic's handover was "almost a condition of survival."

EU WARNING

Belgrade is desperate to avoid suspension of Stabilization and Association pact talks begun last year. They are the first step to eventual EU membership -- Serbia's top priority -- and Brussels has warned they will stop if Mladic is not arrested.

Reports predicting his imminent arrest or detailing official efforts to track him down intensify each time Serbia faces a Western deadline for action, although Serbia constantly protests that it has no evidence he is even in the country.

Mladic lived openly in Belgrade until the fall of nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 undermined his support. Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has repeatedly charged that he is still protected by hardliners in the Army and security agencies of Serbia.

Serbian Human Rights Minister Rasim Ljajic said it would be a good time to extradite Mladic, who is still regarded as a hero-soldier by staunch nationalists opposed to his arrest.

"The latest polls show 57 percent of citizens are in favor of this option. This is the largest percentage so far, much higher than in 2005 let alone 2004, " Ljajic said.

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