Serbs step up search for Mladic before deadline to cut off US aid

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The Independent Online

A crack Serbian police unit has apparently stepped up the search for General Ratko Mladic, the fugitive Bosnian Serb leader, as Serbia faces suspension of US aid because of its reluctance to hand over war crimes suspects.

A crack Serbian police unit has apparently stepped up the search for General Ratko Mladic, the fugitive Bosnian Serb leader, as Serbia faces suspension of US aid because of its reluctance to hand over war crimes suspects.

Yesterday afternoon, rumours were circulating in Belgrade that he had already been arrested and the news would be released officially only when the general was brought to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Friday is the deadline set by the US for cutting the $100m (£55m) in aid if Belgrade does not co-operate with the tribunal. More importantly, the US would also block Serbia's access to international financial institutions. The country must also hand over those indicted for war crimes, such as General Mladic and the Bosnian-Serb wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic.

Unconfirmed reports say the search was concentrated around the central Serbian town of Valjevo, 60 miles south-west of Belgrade. The special anti-terrorist unit was allegedly acting on tips from the US and other intelligence sources.

"The noose is tightening around Mladic," a senior security officer said yesterday. A senior US diplomat added that he was "optimistic that Mladic would soon be arrested".

General Mladic, 61, was indicted by the tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity in 1995. He led the attack of the Bosnian-Serb army against the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica, where his forces massacred 8,000 Muslim boys and men in the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World war.

Mr Karadzic has also been indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. He is believed to be hiding in the mountainous areas of eastern Bosnia and northern Montenegro. The two are the most wanted suspects sought by the tribunal. But the police chief in Valjevo, Milenko Krstic, denied there were any "unusual activities" taking place, saying "the situation was as usual" when contacted by phone yesterday afternoon.

General Mladic owns a small house in the village of Bobova, in the mountainous area 12 miles from Valjevo. It is widely believed that he spends the summers there. But it is impossible to find out if anyone has spotted him in the village.

From time to time, rumours circulate in Belgrade about General Mladic's appearances in the capital. He allegedly attended a wedding some time ago, or a football match in the capital. He moved freely around Serbia until the fall of the former strongman Slobodan Milosevic four years ago, and then went into hiding.

Serbian officials have been reluctant to hand over the war crimes indictees, fearing the reaction of the deeply divided nation. A large part of Serbian public still views both General Mladic and Mr Karadzic as heroes who defended the national interests of Serbs.

The tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, who is due in Belgrade by the end of the week, has repeatedly claimed that General Mladic is hiding in Serbia.

The US ambassador, Michael Polt, in a recent interview with the Serbian press, reiterated Washington's call for Serbia to "meet its international obligations", amid rumours that Belgrade had been given the Friday deadline to extradite General Mladic or face the sanctions.

Asked about this, Mr Polt said the deadline was "yesterday", meaning that he felt General Mladic should have been arrested long ago.

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