Authorities in Belgrade have in effect opened the way for the arrest of the Bosnian Serb warlord Ratko Mladic by stripping him of his army protection, a senior government official revealed yesterday.
According to the Serbian official, who insisted on anonymity, General Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, who has been indicted for genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal, was told several weeks ago "that the Yugoslav Army would no longer protect him".
The official added that General Mladic seemed to be "a lost, confused man, who would rather commit suicide than be handed over to The Hague".
The exact nature of General Mladic's security arrangements is not known. He is rumoured to keep moving from one safe haven to another to avoid arrest.
Notably, he is believed to spend his time at his house in the Belgrade suburb of Banovo Brdo, an army barracks in central Serbia at Valjevo and in a bunker at Han Pijesak in Serb-controlled eastern Bosnia.
After the arrest and transfer to The Hague of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, General Mladic and the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic are the most prominent indictees wanted by the The Hague who have not been arrested.
Belgrade is coming under increasing pressure to help secure the surrender of the two former leaders. The top representative of the international community in Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, told the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, Goran Svilanovic, on Sunday that stability in the Balkans depended on progress in the prosecution of the commanders accused of crimes against humanity during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
Yesterday's comment by the senior Serbian official provided the first indirect confirmation that General Mladic was at least spending part of his time in Serbia. It also means that, as a retired officer, he is under the jurisdiction of Serbian civil authorities, who at least have a theoretical chance of seizing him.
The Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, was instrumental in securing the extradition of Mr Milosevic to The Hague, where he is now on trial. But Mr Djindjic apparently refrained from giving firm assurances regarding General Mladic at a meeting yesterday with Mr Petritsch, the High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina. The two declined to speak to the press after their meeting.
Analysts say that in the current climate of the Milosevic trial, Mr Djindjic, a pragmatic reformist, would find it hard to make a dramatic move right now. Mr Milosevic's trial, which is being broadcast daily on national television, has provoked a groundswell of popular support for the former president among Serbs.
Recent surveys show that his appearances before the tribunal are being watched by half of the adult population. He leaves an excellent or very good impression on 60 per cent of viewers, according to the pollsters.
At the trial yesterday, Mr Milosevic, who faces 66 war crimes charges stemming from the Balkan wars, heard testimony from Kosovo Albanians accusing Serb forces of atrocities in the Serb province.