Yugoslavia's former army commander, indicted for atrocities his forces committed during a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, surrendered to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague yesterday.
General Dragoljub Ojdanic, whose troops drove 800,000 people from their homes and killed thousands during the 1998-99 war in the Yugoslav province, told reporters at Belgrade's airport that he felt "like any other hero" as he headed to the tribunal in the Netherlands.
General Ojdanic, who travelled on a commercial flight to Amsterdam with his wife and a lawyer, is among six suspects who said they would voluntarily surrender rather than face possible arrest and extradition. A total of 24 Serbs are on the UN court's list of suspects wanted for alleged war crimes committed during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
They took part in war campaigns led by Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president already on trial in The Hague. General Ojdanic, 60, has denied that his troops committed atrocities and insists the charges against him are unfounded.
Tribunal officials welcomed his surrender, but stressed that Yugoslav officials must hand over those who refuse to cooperate with the court.
"He is the first of Mr Milosevic's co-accused to have been transferred," said tribunal spokesman Jim Landale. "Hopefully his arrival will mark the beginning of a process which will see the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia living up to all of its obligations under international law."
Jean Jacques Joris, leading adviser to chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, said: "Real cooperation will come when authorities arrest those who don't want to surrender."
Mr Joris declined to say if General Ojdanic will testify against the former president.
"Good luck," a supporter shouted to General Ojdanic as he left Belgrade. "Good luck to you and to all the Serbian people," he replied.
His wife wept as General Ojdanic, dressed in a black leather jacket, was taken into custody and driven in an unmarked van to The Hague.
He joined 40 other suspects in a UN wing at the prison in Scheveningen, just a few miles from the tribunal. He was due to make his first appearance before the court today.
As chief of army staff, General Ojdanic ordered attacks against ethnic-Albanian villages in the spring of 1999 and faces charges of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war, according to his indictment.
Earlier this month, the Yugoslav parliament passed a bill allowing extraditions to the tribunal and the Government issued a deadline to the wanted men to surrender or face arrest. The five others who declared their readiness to surrender are Nikola Sainovic, a former senior aide to Mr Milosevic; Milan Martic, a former Croatian Serb rebel leader; Mile Mrksic and Vladimir Kovacevic, former army officers; and Momcilo Gruban, a former Bosnian Serb prison guard.
Most of them have pledged to turn themselves in to the tribunal within the next two weeks, while Mr Mrksic was given a 30-day deadline because of poor health, the Justice Ministry said.
General Ojdanic and Mr Sainovic were indicted along with Mr Milosevic in May 1999. Eighteen other suspects listed by the UN tribunal – including the most wanted fugitives, the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his wartime commander General Ratko Mladic – now face possible arrest.
Yugoslavia's current leadership, which extradited Mr Milosevic last year, has been under strong pressure from the West to hand over the remaining suspects or risk losing millions of dollars in badly needed US aid.Reuse content