Serbs hunting Mladic fear shoot-out or suicide

The noose is tightening around one of the Balkans' most wanted war crimes suspects, the Bosnian Serb leader General Ratko Mladic, with the Serbian authorities' biggest concern being to capture him alive.

Well-informed sources told The Independent that "the situation is warm, but not hot yet", regarding the general's arrest. However, fears are mounting that Mladic, who went into hiding years ago, might commit suicide and choose the exit of a "tragic hero", to escape being handed over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Many Serbs still regard the fugitive as a war hero.

Authorities fear there could be casualties if an arrest is made. It is widely believed that the general is surrounded by several rings of loyal bodyguards.

Sources close to Mladic said that they doubted that he would surrender. "He'd rather kill himself ... negotiations are out of the question," one anonymous source said. "He has nothing to negotiate about. All his [wartime] aides are behind the bars, he has got nothing to lose."

The general, aged 62, is also said to be in poor health.

The international war crimes tribunal has sentenced half a dozen Bosnian Serb officers who were under Mladic's command for their role in the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica.

Rumours that the government was negotiating surrender have been denied by senior officials, including the national co-ordinator for co-operation with the tribunal, the Human Rights Minister, Rasim Ljajic.

"Such rumours create the impression that we did know where he was all the time, but did not want to arrest him," Mr Ljajic said.

Well-informed sources say that the arrest of Mladic might come "any day now", with one of the big towns in Serbia being pinpointed as his hiding place. Military friends from the days of the former Yugoslavia are believed to be sheltering him. Besides Srebrenica, Mladic is accused of complicity in genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of laws or customs of war in the armed conflict in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. More than 200,000 people died in the war, most of them non-Serbs.

Under his ruthless command, the daily shelling of the capital, Sarajevo took 10,000 lives - a death toll higher than the number of victims under the German occupation in the Second World War.

The chilling video of the execution of six young Muslims, which was revealed last week in the trial of the former strongman Slobodan Milosevic and shown on Bosnian and Serbian television, seems to have speeded up the hunt for Mladic inside Serbia.

Serbia's financial survival and full reintegration into the international community depends on the extradition of Mladic.

Well-informed sources said that the name of the town in Serbia where the general is allegedly hiding is not being revealed for "fear of unrest".

The US assistant secretary of state Nicholas Burns, announcing the restoration of a $10m (£5.5m) aid package to Belgrade on Thursday, said: "We are confident that his days of relative freedom are numbered."

Mladic's whereabouts have been a mystery for years now. Although wanted by the tribunal since 1995, he lived more or less freely in Mr Milosevic's Serbia. From time to time he even resided in his family house in the Kosutnjak neighbourhood of Belgrade. However, since the change of regime and Mr Milosevic's extradition to the tribunal in 2001, the general went literally underground. Last summer he was reported to have been seen in the Han Pijesak compound in eastern Bosnia, the Communist-era underground military complex he used in the war. Last autumn he allegedly spent some time in a similar complex in Belgrade.

Still free

RADOVAN KARADZIC

Born 1945, in Montenegro. Set up the Serbian Democratic Party, dedicated to a Greater Serbia. Declared an independent Serbian Republic of Bosnia, headed by himself, in 1992. Allegedly orchestrated the Srebrenica massacre, the shelling of Sarajevo, and using UN peacekeepers as human shields. Indicted for war crimes in 1995 and went into hiding.

ANTE GOTOVINA

Born 1955 in Croatia; member of French Foreign Legion in the 1970s. Commander in the Croatian Army in the early 1990s. In 1995 allegedly orchestrated Operation Storm, in which soldiers raped, tortured, and killed thousands of Serbs in the Krajina region of Croatia. Dismissed in 2000. Went into hiding after war crime indictment.

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