BELGRADE // Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader charged with orchestrating Europe's worst massacre of civilians since the Second World War, was arrested yesterday after a 16-year hunt for the alleged architect of what a war-crimes judge called "scenes from hell".
Mr Mladic's dawn arrest removed the most important barrier to western-leaning Serbia's efforts to join the European Union and to rehabilitate the country's image as a pariah state that sheltered the men responsible for the worst atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The secret police reportedly discovered a bearded and profoundly aged Mr Mladic yesterday morning while searching the homes of his cousin and two sons in the village in Lazarevo in the northern province of Vojvodina. He is said to have been carrying identity papers bearing the name Milorad Komadic.
Mr Mladic had two pistols when he was arrested but offered no resistance, Serbian officials and media said. The leader of Serbia's nationalist Serbian Radical Party, Dragan Todorovic, called for a "peaceful protest" and security has been stepped up to protect foreign embassies, the parliament buildings and broadcasters in case of violence.
Reports indicate, however, that Belgrade is peaceful, with no more than a dozen ultra-nationalists congregating in Republic Square to chant Mr Mladic's name and football songs aimed at provoking Muslims.
The Serbian president, Boris Tadic, said: "We have ended a difficult period of our history and removed the stain from the face of Serbia and the members of our nation wherever they live."
A Serbian official close to Mr Tadic told reporters that the president had personally overseen the arrest operation, and compared it to President Barack Obama's involvement in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Mr Obama hailed the arrest and said Mr Mladic must now answer to his victims in court.
"May the families of Mladic's victims find some solace in today's arrest, and may this deepen the ties among the people of the region," Mr Obama said.
Mr Tadic said Serbia had begun the process of extraditing the former general to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, sending him to an investigative judge in a Belgrade court who read the indictment against him. Mr Mladic, 69, faces life imprisonment if convicted of genocide and other charges. The UN court has no death penalty.
Foremost among the horrors Mr Mladic is charged with is the slaughter in July 1995 of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which was supposed to be a safe zone guarded by Dutch peacekeepers.
A bull-necked field commander with narrow, piercing blue eyes, Mr Mladic seized the town and was seen handing candy to Muslim children in the town's square. "Don't be afraid," he told the Muslim women of Srebrenica as they waited to leave on buses on July 11, 1995, smoothing the hair of some children, aware of the camera."No one will harm you," he was quoted as telling crowds at the time.
Hours later, his men began days of killing, rape and torture.
War crimes tribunal judge Fouad Riad said during Mr Mladic's indictment in absentia in 1995 that the court had seen evidence of "unimaginable savagery: thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson".
"These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history," he said.
But even as Balkan war-crimes fugitives such as Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were brought to The Hague, Mr Mladic was idolised and sheltered by ultranationalists and ordinary Serbs despite a €10 million (Dh51.7m) Serbian government bounty, plus US$5m (Dh18m) offered by the US State Department.
He was known to have made daring forays into Belgrade to watch football matches and feast on fish at an elite restaurant.
In a particularly brazen touch, he had been using the alias Milorad Komadic, an anagram of his true identity, police said.
Before sunrise, agents of Serbia's domestic intelligence agency moved quietly on Mr Mladic's hideout, a single-storey yellow brick house owned by a relative of the fugitive's mother, said Radmilo Stanisic, the de facto mayor of Lazarevo, a village of some 2,000 residents about 100km north-east of Belgrade.
"They didn't even wake us up," said a resident who identified himself only as Zoran. "I'm furious. They arrested our hero."
A sign reading "Mladic Hero" was posted on the entrance of the village as police vehicles guarded the house where Mr Mladic was arrested.
Rasim Ljajic, a government minister in charge of cooperation with the UN tribunal, said "Mladic looked like an old man" when he was arrested.
"One could pass by him without recognising him," Mr Ljajic said. "He was pale, which could mean he rarely ventured out of the house - a probable reason why he went unnoticed," he said.
Belgrade B-92 radio said one of Mr Mladic's arms was paralysed - probably the result of a stroke.
Serbian state TV said Mr Mladic was bald and appeared "worn out".
The nationalist Serbian Radical Party said Mr Mladic was a "hero" and described his seizure as "one of the hardest moments in Serbian history."
The extreme-right group 1389 said the arrest was "a treason" and called on citizens to pour into the streets and protest.
Justice officials in The Hague said it would take at least a week before Mr Mladic was handed over.
Regular reports on Serbia's compliance with the chief UN war crimes prosecutor are crucial for its efforts to become an EU member candidate. The prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, had long complained that authorities were not doing enough to capture Mr Mladic and other war-crimes fugitives.
Yesterday, Mr Brammertz called justice for the victims of Mr Mladic's alleged crimes in Bosnia "long overdue."
In Bosnia, the arrest was welcomed by the head of a group of victims' family members formed to keep the pressure on war crimes investigators. But, added Munira Subasic, "I'm sorry for all the victims who are dead and cannot see this day."
* Associated Press, with additional reporting by Phil Cain in Graz, Austria