Net closes on Serb military chief wanted for war crimes

General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander indicted for war crimes by the United Nations, may be close to capture, reports last night indicated.

The United States lifted its freeze on a $10m (£5.5m) aid package for Serbia-Montenegro yesterday, saying that General Mladic's "days in relative freedom are numbered".

"It's our very strong hope that Serbia will now take the final steps to send General Mladic to The Hague to have him put on trial for the crimes he directed in the murder of 8,000 men and boys of Srebrenica," a US undersecretary of state, Nicholas Burns, said after meeting Serbian officials in Belgrade. "We hope his days in relative freedom are numbered."

The US decided to hold back economic aid to Serbia because of its non-cooperation with the UN tribunal in The Hague over the arrest of suspected war criminals. But the detention by Serbian authorities of more than a dozen war crimes suspects in the past six months has satisfied US demands and raised the possibility that General Mladic could be next.

General Mladic is wanted on charges of genocide, but has spent the 10 years since the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia on the run from authorities. His whereabouts, and those of the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was indicted with him in 1995, have been an open secret in Bosnia for years, but the pair have not been brought to justice.

The Serbian Justice Minister, Zoran Stojkovic, denied reports of secret government negotiations with General Mladic on his surrender but said he "shared Mr Burns' optimism".

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