The family of the Bosnian Serb war-time commander Ratko Mladic is seeking to bring the search for the genocide suspect to an end by having him declared legally dead.
In a move that they said they hoped would draw a line under seven years of doubt, and which public officials dismissed as a mockery of state institutions, the family's legal team announced yesterday that they would put their demand to the Serbian authorities within days.
Lawyer Milos Saljic told Belgrade B92 TV that the family wants this because of the "freezing of his pension and property and harassment the family is exposed to".
Mladic is being hunted by the international war crimes tribunal for the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys after the fall of the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica. The crime, committed by the Bosnian Serb Army in July 1995, remains the worst atrocity in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
Apart from the charges of genocide at Srebrenica, Mladic is accused of masterminding the siege of Sarajevo, which took 10,000 lives and lasted 44 months.
Mr Saljic argued that the procedure to declare a missing person dead can be commenced by a relative who can prove that he or she has "legal interest" in doing so. The law in Serbia says that a person over 70 years of age who has not been heard from for more than five years can be declared officially dead without such significant proof as would ordinarily be required. Families commonly turn to that option to secure property.
Mladic's son, Darko, and wife, Bosa, have lived in a villa in the affluent Belgrade neighbourhood of Banovo Brdo since the early 1990s.
However, if Mladic is alive he is now 68, and the family will have to prove that he vanished under circumstances that make it probable he is no longer among the living.
The authorities remain unconvinced. Rasim Ljajic, chairman of Serbia's National Council for co-operation with the war crimes tribunal, based in The Hague, said the move by the Mladic family represents the "mockery of state institutions".
"Thousands of people have gone missing in the wars, but none of their family members asked the court to proclaim them dead, although the possibility that they were not alive any more was much higher," Mr Ljajic said yesterday. "The Mladic family is making this demand exactly because they know he is alive."
The family of the war-time commander claims he was last seen seven years ago. But the Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic, who has devoted his life to finding Mladic, said several months ago that the authorities were aware of Mladic's movements until three years ago and that Mladic was in Serbia in 2007.
Mr Vukcevic said yesterday that the family's move means nothing and that "the search will continue".
In the past months, Serbia has made a series of attempts at arresting Mladic, mostly by raiding his home in an effort to trace him or find evidence of his war-time activities.
It was only last week that the international war crimes tribunal said Serbia had handed over 18 war-time diaries by Mladic, with 3,500 pages of text, dealing with events between 1991 and 1995, at the times of wars in Croatia and Bosnia. They were seized during a raid of his Belgrade home in February.
A year ago, the broader public all over the region became familiar with the videotapes seized by Serbian police in December 2008. The tapes, which received blanket coverage in the Bosnian and Serbian media, contained scenes from Mladic's family life at times of war but in the post-war years as well.
The arrest of Mladic remains a key precondition for Belgrade's aspirations for the EU membership.
No relevant official from the tribunal had a comment on the Mladic family's move yesterday. The spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic said only that the tribunal "can't deal with speculations" on what the Mladic family intends to do in Serbia.