When it reached its climax, the 11-year manhunt for Radovan Karadzic, the so-called "Butcher of Bosnia", ended without a shot being fired. There were no special forces lobbing stun grenades into a mountain hideout, no helicopters hovering overhead. In the end, Karadzic, 63, was arrested on a bus in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, where he had been practising - quite openly but under a false name - alternative therapy.
Thus ended one of the greatest manhunts in postwar Europe. As he defied Nato search parties trying to bring him to justice at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, his heroic aura among Serbian die-hards only grew. No one in Belgrade, it seems, recognised "Dragan Dabic", a white-haired old man with a straggling beard and thick glasses, as the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, a larger-than-life figure famed for his elegantly arranged grey tresses and taste for the high life.
"He freely walked around the city," said Vladimir Vukcevic, the Serbian war crimes prosecutor. "Even the people he rented a flat from were unaware of his identity." Karadzic's lawyers now have three days to appeal the indictment with which he was served yesterday. His transfer to The Hague is expected shortly afterwards. It is clear that his life in hiding did not end by chance. The office of the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, said Karadzic was arrested by Serbian security forces following a tip by a foreign intelligence agency.
However, talk of a tip might be a face-saver for the Belgrade government: some elements of the Serbian security forces clearly knew where he was hiding but were reluctant to hand him over. The re-election in February of Mr Tadic, who is pro-European and determined to put behind him the legacy of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, signalled the end of Karadzic's high-level protection. "I believe he probably negotiated some form of surrender," said Sir Michael Rose, former commander of UN forces in Bosnia.
Karadzic faces 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity during the Bosnian war of 1992-95. The allegations he faces include authorising the killing of 12,000 civilians during the siege of Sarajevo and organising the massacre of at least 7,500 Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica in July 1995, the worst atrocity in postwar Europe. If convicted, he faces life imprisonment.
The only war crimes suspect still at large is the former Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, who is believed to be closely protected by the Serbian army. Unlike Karadzic, he is not thought likely to give himself up alive. The highest-profile suspect to appear before the tribunal, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president, died before his complex trial was complete - an outcome that the tribunal is under pressure not to allow to happen again.
Yesterday, Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who brokered peace in Bosnia in 1995, told CNN: "A major, major thug has been removed from the public scene. He was at large because the Yugoslav army was protecting him. But this guy was worse than Milosevic. He was the intellectual leader." Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said Belgrade must be rewarded for this first step and urged the bloc to allow Serbia to enjoy improved trading conditions.
But even this was too soon for some. "Things will be easier, but let's not prejudge anything," said Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, whose country holds the presidency of the 27-nation EU. "Karadzic has been arrested, but Mladic has not." The fact that Karadzic managed to live quietly for a decade in Belgrade is just one of the contradictory aspects of a very complex man. With his flamboyant character, he never quite fit the image of an evil genius. He hid the brutal ideology of Serb supremacy behind a facade of eccentricity and old-world courtesy. Talking to him left the impression of someone slightly unbalanced, but not a man who could unleash a war that shocks Europeans to this day.
"His talk was full of mysticism, maps and history," said Martin Bell, a former BBC reporter in Bosnia and member of the British parliament. "He was the most impossible person to reason with I have ever met." Karadzic was not born in Serbia, but in Montenegro, a coastal republic once a part of Yugoslavia. As an outsider, he followed other European nationalist leaders before him - Napoleon was from the island of Corsica and Hitler from Austria.
He moved to Sarajevo, which was then part of Yugoslavia and is now the capital of Bosnia, but the urban cosmopolitans treated him like a country bumpkin. At the time Sarajevo was a thriving city, dominated by Bosnian Muslims, the old elite from Ottoman times. Muslims, Serbs and Croats intermarried freely in the city. It was unthinkable to those who lived there that the genie of religious nationalism, bottled up for two generations, should ever return to ravage their cafe society.
Trained as a psychiatrist, Karadzic found work treating the players of the Sarajevo football team. But he was restless - a poet, whose epics of the Serb nation could not find a publisher among the Sarajevo sophisticates, and a musician who played the gusle, a Serbian folk instrument. He had a passion for gambling. Karadzic's chance to play on a bigger stage came when Yugoslavia began to fall apart in the 1980s.
He joined the Bosnian Serb Democratic Party and led the Serb opposition to the Bosnian Muslim leaders who opted for independence in 1992. As the country collapsed, people like Karadzic saw their chance to assert Serbian control wherever there were Serbian minorities - through ethnic cleansing, a policy they openly acknowledged, and genocide, which they tried to hide. He was so passionate about his goal of creating a Greater Serbia that he never hid it: standing on the Bosnian hills he would unfurl maps in front of journalists and wave his giant hands around and declare that all the land would become "Western Serbia".
He never believed the West would turn against the Serbs. He would tell journalists: "We are fighting your war against the Muslims." Belatedly the West sided with the Muslims against the Serbs, deploying Nato troops in force. Karadzic was the star of the seemingly endless Geneva peace talks. As they ground on, he became harder and harder to track down. With hindsight, he should have been looked for in the casinos, where he was gambling away the vast profits he made smuggling alcohol, fuel and cigarettes during the war.
His arrest removes one of the obstacles to Serbia joining the EU - the other being the capture of Mladic. As Karadzic sits in jail, he can mull over what is perhaps his only achievement as a Serbian nationalist. By evading arrest for so long he has helped to delay Serbia's entry into the EU, which will in time dissolve the Serb identity - for whose sake so much blood was shed - into a European one.