Mladic was said last night to have been located by the Serbian authorities and to be negotiating his surrender to face charges of genocide at the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Though Serbian government officials insisted that he had not been arrested, there was growing confidence that his time on the run was coming to an end.
Mladic stands accused of orchestrating a bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing culminating in the murder of about 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, the most infamous act of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The failure of the Serbian authorities to arrest the general has been a growing source of disquiet in Western capitals, and the EU has put serious pressure on Belgrade to hand over the suspect. On Monday the European Commission is expected to recommend slowing down EU aid and trade negotiations with the Serbian government because of its lacklustre co-operation with the war crimes tribunal.
Yesterday it looked as if that tough line was starting to pay off. Sources close to the hunt said Mladic had been located and negotiations were under way for his surrender. Unconfirmed reports said the fugitive general was on Cer mountain, on the border with Bosnia some 120km west of Belgrade. Mladic has been indicted over the 43-month siege of Sarajevo which claimed 12,000 lives and for orchestrating the massacre at Srebrenica.
His political master, Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president, who is indicted on the same charges, is still at large and is the UN tribunal's other most wanted man.
European diplomats have long been convinced that the Serbian security forces could find Mladic if the political will was there.
Serb authorities have in recent weeks been closing cautiously on Mladic, ever mindful of the hero status he continues to enjoy among a sizeable proportion of the population. Authorities are obviously aware that any action should avoid casualties.
Government officials have taken to explaining, almost on a daily basis, why the general has to be arrested or negotiated into surrender. "The nation can no longer be the hostage of one man," the Defence Minister, Zoran Stankovic, said.
Confusion reigned yesterday after Belgrade's state news agency Tanjug, quoting Bosnian Serb BN television, reported that Mladic had been arrested and was "being transported" to the US-run air force base in Tuzla, eastern Bosnia.
The Serbian government denied the report, its spokesman, Srdjan Djuric, saying: "The news about Ratko Mladic is not correct. It is a manipulation which damages the [Serbian] government." A spokeswoman for the war crimes tribunal said it had been given no information about any arrest.
Nevertheless, this new willingness to discuss handing him over is in sharp contrast to past evasions. The Serb army has been proven to have provided the ailing general - who suffers an acute kidney complaint - with medical care at the Military Medical Academy in Belgrade. He was treated under three different names, from 1993 until 1997, the documents said.
Searches of military archives revealed that some 50 people have helped Mladic in hiding. The Supreme Defence Council pointed at three locations in Serbia where the fugitive had hidden since 1997, all belonging to the military. The US and the EU have gradually increased pressure on the Serbian authorities, which have handed over a series of lesser suspects to The Hague. Similar methods were applied to Croatia over its most wanted war crimes suspect, General Ante Gotovina, who was arrested in the Canary Islands in December, shortly after Zagreb began formal membership talks with the EU.
But Mladic is a much bigger prize. As the commander of the Bosnian Serb forces in the 1990s, he is accused of genocide, the gravest offence that can be tried at The Hague, as well as lesser charges including complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity. If he is handed over, his trial will be the biggest event for the UN tribunal since the beginning of the case against Slobodan Milosevic in 2002.Reuse content