THE HAGUE // At the start of his trial yesterday, the Bosnian-Serb general Ratko Mladic made a throat-slitting gesture to a woman who lost her son, husband and brothers in the Srebrenica massacre.
Gen Mladic, now 70, flashed a defiant thumbs-up as he entered the courtroom where he is being tried for some of the worst atrocities in Europe since the Second World War. He is the last of the main protagonists in the Balkan wars of the 1990s to go on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
A hero to Serb nationalists, the "Butcher of Bosnia" to his Muslim and Croat victims, the pugnacious general eluded justice for 16 years until he was captured in a cousin's farmhouse in Serbia in May last year.
The list of 11 charges stemming from his actions as the Serb military commander in the Bosnian War of 1992-95 ranges from genocide to murder, acts of terror and crimes against humanity.
He is accused of orchestrating not only the week-long massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, but also the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 people were killed.
Gen Mladic, who refused to enter a plea, cuts a much frailer figure now than his strutting wartime presence - his defence lawyer said he had suffered three strokes and a heart attack. But he appears to have lost none of his defiance.
In the public gallery, Munira Subasic, whose 18-year-old son, husband and brothers were killed in Srebrenica, stared at him from behind a glass barrier, crossing her wrists to imitate handcuffs.
Gen Mladic stared back and drew a hand across his throat. Alphons Orie, the presiding judge, promptly called a brief recess and ordered an end to "inappropriate interactions".
"I thought I would see at least some remorse in his eyes when I came here," Mrs Subasic said. "But instead I saw his bloodthirstiness."
The proceedings were broadcast live on big screens in Sarajevo, where thousands were killed by snipers and artillery.
Hasna Hadzic, a pensioner who survived the siege, stopped off on her way from the market, visibly shaken.
"I feel like crying when I think of what he has done to us: killed 8,000 in Srebrenica alone, killed people in Foca, Visegrad, our children in Sarajevo," she said.
But in Pale, the mountain stronghold from which Serb forces orchestrated the siege and bombardment of the capital 16 kilometres away, applause broke out in cafes every time Gen Mladic appeared on television screens.
"Crimes were committed by all sides," said the Serb student Mladen Mancic. "This is just an honourable man who defended the Serb people."
Gen Mladic was in command of the Bosnian-Serb army when, over several days in July 1995, Serb fighters attacked the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia.
Dermot Groome, the prosecutor, beginning a two-day opening statement, said Gen Mladic and other Bosnian Serbs had been implementing a grand plan to eliminate non-Serbs.
"The prosecution will present evidence that will show beyond a reasonable doubt the hand of Mr Mladic in each of these crimes," he said.
He was indicted in 1995 along with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader, who is also on trial in The Hague. Yet both remained free in Serbia for more than a decade before being tracked down.
Gen Mladic has dismissed the charges as "monstrous" and claims he is too ill to endure a trial that may last two years or more.
Some victims fear that his failing health could help him avoid judgment like his mentor Slobodan Milosevic, the architect of the Balkan wars, who died in detention in 2006 - a few months before a verdict in his trial for genocide and war crimes.
Branko Lukic, the defence lawyer, said that after his strokes and heart attack, Gen Mladic's health "will never be OK".
The prosecution case alone is projected to last 200 hours, with testimony from 411 witnesses. Defence lawyers have said they have not had have enough time to review the huge case file.
The judges said yesterday that prosecutors had made "very significant errors" in the disclosure of evidence.