Mladic 'negotiates surrender' as UN puts pressure on Serbs

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Ratko Mladic, the former Bosian Serb general wanted for war crimes, was still at large last night, despite reports suggesting that he was in Belgrade negotiating his surrender to authorities.

Carla Del Ponte, the chief UN prosecutor, denied rumours that the war crimes fugitive had been arrested and urged Serbia to find him or risk damaging its bid to join the European Union.

The Serbian government, which has come under intense US and the EU pressure to hand over Mladic, continued to issue blanket denials yesterday that he was either in custody or in talks with them.

However, in a frantic day of speculation in the Serb capital, sources close to the hunt for Mladic insisted that he had been in hiding at Cer Mountain on the Bosnian border, 120 kilometres west of Belgrade, and that he had subsequently been transferred to the capital.

Cer Mountain houses the military's underground installations, in which Mladic could have easily hidden. Access to the area is restricted to authorised personnel only.

Negotiated surrenders were introduced last year in an effort to encourage those indicted for war crimes to turn themselves in to the Serbian government.

Such deals provide the fugitives from justice with financial support for families and defence lawyers at the expense of Serb taxpayers. This prevents messy arrests, casualties and a possible protest from Serb nationalists who still view the alleged war criminals as heroes.

Mladic, 63, who led the slaughter of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica a decade ago, was indicted in 1995 on counts ranging from crimes against humanity to murder and genocide by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Possible negotiations with the fugitive general are likely to be tough for several reasons. He is allegedly in a highly nervous and changeable state, with one source saying he is "depressed and keeps changing his mind on whether to surrender or not".

The Bosnian Serb police director, Dragomir Andan, reportedly arrived to Belgrade on Tuesday afternoon to negotiate a scenario similar to the arrest of Croatia's most wanted war criminal, Ante Gotovina. This would involve using a third country as basis for extradition, in this case it was the Bosnian Serb Republic.

Gotovina was arrested in Spain and transferred to the international war crimes tribunal in December. This saved face for the Croatian government amid staunch nationalist opposition.

Negotiations, analysts say, are not only about saving face, though, and money can be the deciding factor. Speculation in Belgrade suggested that Mladic has demanded up to €5m(£3.4m) for his family and dependants in return for his surrender.

The former general was more or less living freely in Belgrade until the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Some government officials fear that if he is handed over, he will reveal the full extent of Belgrade's involvement in the Bosnian war.

Military documents relating to Mladic could aggravate Belgrade's position in a case that Bosnia is bringing before the International Court of Justice. Bosnia has accused Serbia of active participation in the Bosnian war and Belgrade could face the bill for war damages to its neighbour if found guilty.