The arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Serb general wanted for the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, is thought to be imminent after Serbia's Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, in a surprising turnaround, called the indicted war criminal "a stone around Serbia's neck".
Mr Kostunica, a conservative nationalist who in the past was a warm friend of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serbian president, also indicted over Srebrenica and also on the run, conceded for the first time yesterday that his government needed to deliver Mladic to the Hague war crimes tribunal to avoid being at a disadvantage in talks on the future of Kosovo.
International negotiations on the hotly disputed Serbian province whose Albanian majority clamours for independence are due to start this month.
"No doubt co-operation with the tribunal will influence the negotiations over [the European Union] stabilisation and association agreement as well as negotiations over Kosovo," Mr Kostunica said.
When pressed over whether his cabinet would hand over Mladic, Mr Kostunica added: "I am sure it will... the government will certainly do every-thing to accomplish it. That is a stone around Serbia's neck."
The war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has set several deadlines for the general's arrest, which Serbian governments have duly ignored.
But in recent days informed speculation has grown that Serbian security forces, possibly with logistical support from Britain's MI6, may whisk the general to The Hague as soon as today, taking advantage of the tranquillity that grips Serbia on New Year's Day as fun-loving Serbs nurse fierce hangovers.
Mr Kostunica's forthright remarks were only the latest signal that the authorities are preparing public opinion for the arrest of a man seen by many Serbs as a hero in spite of the Srebrenica slaughter, the worst atrocity to occur in Europe since the Second World War.
The extent of support for Mladic was underlined on Friday when Tomislav Nikolic, acting leader of the opposition Radical Party, urged the general to commit suicide rather than surrender to international justice.
Serbia's Defence Minister, Zoran Stankovic, also recently appealed to Mladic to kill himself. "If I were in his place, I would take my own life," said Mr Stankovic, who was a close friend of Mladic's. The remarks were seen by Belgrade-watchers as a coded message to the general that the authorities, who for a decade have pretended they know nothing of his whereabouts, will no longer guarantee his protection.
As international pressure has mounted on Serbia to take action, Belgrade was embarrassed by Thursday's revelation that the army had continued to pay Mladic's pension until only last month. For a decade Mladic has drawn on the support of a network of hardliners in the army and the intelligence services. Some are inspired by simple ultra-nationalism - others by the fear that once the hunt for Mladic is over, the way will be open for Serbia to join Nato's Partnership for Peace programme and they will be purged.
Two weeks ago Belgrade's largest-circulation daily, Vecernje Novosti, quoted government sources as saying Mladic would be cooling his heels in Scheveningen prison by New Year - alongside his former paymaster and mentor, Slobodan Milosevic.
The pressure on Serbia has reached a new pitch since Croatia's last major fugitive, General Ante Gotovina, was captured in the Canary Islands.
One former police chief in Belgrade has claimed that Mladic may be holding talks with the security services about surrendering. Marco Nicovic said the general was driving a hard bargain, insisting on financial security for his helpers and family and an amnesty for those who sheltered him.
Others say that Mladic, whose deep hatred of Muslims led him to perpetuate one grisly atrocity after another, wholly discrediting the Bosnian Serb cause, would never do anything so rational. Directing the Serb siege of Sarajevo in 1992, he famously urged his gunners to pound Muslim suburbs to shreds and "scorch their brains".
Mr Kostunica insisted yesterday that "there have never been any negotiations with Mladic". If he is indeed captured, he will face a range of weighty charges in The Hague from violations of the laws and customs of war to genocide.Reuse content