Top Croat war crimes suspect found after four years on the run

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The Independent Online

Spanish police have detained a top Croatian war crimes suspect, General Ante Gotovina, in the Canary Islands after more than four years on the run, in a breakthrough for the United Nations war crimes tribunal.

Gen Gotovina, who is considered responsible for the deaths of 150 Serbs and the forced removal of up to 200,000 in 1995, had been under surveillance for several days while he moved around the Canary Islands, until Interpol gave Spanish police the arrest order.

He was arrested on Wednesday night as he was sitting down to dinner at the Bitacora hotel on the Playa de las Americas in southern Tenerife. He was carrying a false Croatian passport, and offered no resistance.

"I have some very good news ... Ante Gotovina was arrested last night in the Canary Islands. He is now in detention, finally, and will be brought to The Hague," Carla del Ponte, the UN's chief war crimes prosecutor, announced yesterday in Belgrade. The capture amounts to a slap in the face for Serbia, which is accused of failing to co-operate fully with the tribunal in arresting the two other top Balkans war fugitives, the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic.

Gen Gotovina was flown to the military airbase of Torrejon, near Madrid, yesterday to make a brief appearance before a judge in Spain's National Court who was due to read the international charges against him. Gen Gotovina was then due to be taken to the UN court in The Hague.

Gen Gotovina, who was 50 yesterday and is considered a national hero by many Croats, is accused of crimes against humanity. His flight from justice had been the main obstacle to Croatia's bid to join the EU.

In August 1995 in the war of the former Yugoslavia, Gen Gotovina led a military offensive to retake the Serb-dominated region of Krajina. On the third day of fighting the Croat government declared victory, but violent confrontations persisted until November. During that time, according to the war crimes indictment, Gen Gotovina ordered his troops to carry out "inhuman acts". Tens of thousands of Serb homes were set on fire in the operation, which was codenamed "Storm".

The offensive marked the end of the Belgrade-backed rebellion of Croatia's Serbs and the four-year war for Croatian independence.

Croatia insisted that the general, a former veteran of the French foreign legion, fled the country shortly before his indictment for war crimes was made public in July 2001. Croatian authorities stepped up the hunt, co-operating with international efforts, after the EU delayed the start of membership talks in March.

Three months ago, Ms Del Ponte accused the Catholic church of protecting Gen Gotovina and hiding him in a Franciscan monastery in Croatia. The Vatican denied this.

News of the arrest was welcomed by the European Union, and by the Croatian Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader. "There's no alternative to the rule of law," Mr Sanader said. "This is a confirmation of our credibility as we insisted that Gotovina was not in Croatia."

Gen Gotovina joined the foreign legion at the age of 18. As a legionnaire, he fought in Djibouti, Chad, Zaire and Ivory Coast, and also worked as a military instructor in Latin America. He was sentenced three times for robbery, kidnapping and extortion before returning to fight in the war.