Srebrenica trial begins but Mladic still at large

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The Independent Online

The biggest war crimes trial to be held over the massacre in 1995 of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica began in earnest yesterday with a reminder that the alleged architects of Europe's worst atrocity since the Second World War remain at large.

Serbia's failure to hand over either Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb political leader, or Ratko Mladic, his military commander, was sharply criticised by Carla del Ponte, the chief UN prosecutor, as the trial of seven other men resumed at The Hague.

"Unfortunately, two men who should be in this courtroom are still at large. I am talking of course about Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic," Ms Del Ponte said. "The inexcusable refusal by Serbian authorities to arrest Mladic and hand him over means that there will be another Srebrenica case when he is arrested," she said. "The government of Serbia is perfectly capable of doing so ... it is scandalous."

Despite the absence of General Mladic, the trial yesterday was crucial in attempts to bring the perpetrators of the Srebrenica massacre to justice, said Ms Del Ponte. The seven men in the dock were "among the most responsible" for the killings of thousands of Muslims in the UN-declared safe haven in eastern Bosnia. All have pleaded not guilty to war crimes.

Five of the accused, Ljubisa Beara, Vujadin Popovic, Drago Nikolic, Vinko Pandurevic and Ljubomir Borovcanin, face charges of genocide at Srebrenica. Remains of the massacre's victims are still being dug up. A mass grave containing bodies of around 1,000 victims was discovered in the small village of Kamenica only last week.

"It is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend the horror inflicted on the inhabitants of the Srebrenica enclave," Ms Del Ponte said. "Defenceless men and boys [were] executed by firing squads, buried in mass graves and then dug up and buried again in an attempt to conceal the truth from the world."

Another two former officers, Milan Gvero and Radivoje Miletic, stand accused of crimes against humanity and violation of customs of war not only in Srebrenica but also in Zepa, another UN-protected zone in eastern Bosnia. Like Srebrenica, Zepa was overrun by Bosnian Serbs in July 1995, but with far fewer victims among the Muslim population. Serbia's failure to arrest Mladic has been the biggest obstacle in its bid to join the EU, prompting Brussels to freeze accession talks in May.

The nationalist and conservative government of Vojislav Kostunica recently submitted a plan of action in an effort to convince the EU and the tribunal that it was doing its best to arrest Mladic.

The general is widely believed to be hiding in the country. Analysts say the government is keen to negotiate an agreement with Mladic for his surrender, fearing public protests in case of an arrest.

A significant section of the Serbian public still regards Mladic as a national hero. Recent surveys show that 30 per cent of Serbs oppose Mladic's transfer to the tribunal. It is rumoured that Mladic will not allow his picture to be taken in handcuffs and would rather commit suicide than turn himself in.

Despite this, however, government efforts in past months to round up his supporters have been fruitful. Ten people believed to have formed a network around him enabling him to remain in hiding face trial in Belgrade soon. The indictment against them contains details of Mladic's whereabouts up until 31 December 2005.

Mladic is believed to have been hiding mostly in rented flats in the suburb of New Belgrade, an area well known for its large number of retired military officers. His aides are said to have rented the apartments for short periods at a time, paying up to €2,400 (£1,600) a month, and transferred him from flat to flat when fearing his arrest. They are thought to have provided him with single-use mobile phone SIM cards, food, medicines, and even his own cook, in the form of the mother of one of his aides.