War crimes tribunal closes in on Mladic as aide surrenders

The net is is closing on Ratko Mladic, one of the most wanted Bosnia war crimes fugitives, after one of his close aides surrendered to the UN's international tribunal in the Hague.

Milan Gvero, 67, a general in the Bosnian-Serb army during the 1992-95 conflict, faces charges of murder, persecution and deportation of Bosnian Muslims. Analysts believe his detention has brought authorities a step closer to finding Mladic as Mr Gvero is thought to know the whereabouts of his wartime commander. Veterans of the war remember the pair as keen chess partners with the condition that Mr Gvero would ensure that he never defeated his senior officer.

Despite a series of high-profile search operations by Nato's stabilisation force in Bosnia, Mladic has evaded capture for nearly a decade.

He has been indicted over the 43-month siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys from the supposed UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica in 1995.

Carla del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, says he is in Serbia, but Belgrade denies it. Mr Gvero is the third relatively high-profile Serb to hand himself in to the Hague in recent months and Belgrade is hoping to win favour with the international community.

Mr Gvero, who arrived in the Netherlands on a Serbian government jet, stands accused - along with Radivoje Miletic, another Bosnian Serb army officer - of war crimes in Srebrenica and Zepa, in eastern Bosnia, in 1995. The two are being held responsible for deaths, persecution and eviction of tens of thousands in the two zones. The operation peaked when Mladic's men overran Srebrenica.

General Gvero came to prominence as a spokesman for the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) at the beginning of former Yugoslavia's war of disintegration in 1991. At the height of bombardment of the Croatian coastal town of Dubrovnik, General Gvero claimed that JNA had not caused "even a particle of dust to fall on the city".

There was a strong police presence as the Serbian government jet took off from Belgrade where the former general said goodbye to dozens of friends and relatives. His departure will be sweetened by a significant cash payment. It is an open secret in the Serb capital that the policy pursued by the conservative Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, of persuasion rather than arrest for war crimes indictees is backed up by payouts of hundreds of thousands of euros to their relatives for "service to the homeland".

"General Gvero said that with this decision to surrender he wanted to fulfil his obligations to the state, his people and his family," the Serbian government said, commenting on his decision to surrender.

But Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb leader, and Mladic remain the prize that the international community seek. The European Union has said Belgrade must step up co-operation with the tribunal if Brussels is to give approval at the end of March for a "feasibility study" on whether to forge closer ties. Their arrest and extradition are preconditions for Serbia to begin exploratory talks on accession to the EU. Meanwhile, the US continues to hold back millions in badly needed aid until it is satisfied Belgrade is co-operating with the tribunal.

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