Ratko Mladic's life on the run as one of the world's most wanted men was full of twists and turns -- even though he never really left home.
The 69-year-old general, a war crimes suspect who faces charges over the massacre of 7,500 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995, was arrested in a village in northern Serbia where he was living under an assumed name. Mladic became the most high-profile war crimes suspect still on the run after the arrest in 2008 of Serbian politician Radovan Karadzic on similar charges, and his capture promises to bring some closure to the pain of the brutal conflict in Yugoslavia.
His 16 years as a fugitive were marked by enough mistaken obituaries, false sightings from Jamaica to Greece, and cloak-and-dagger adventures to merit a Hollywood thriller. The release of home videos of Mladic hanging out with his family and a much-publicized sighting of him sitting in a VIP box at a Yugoslavia-China soccer game in 2000 prompted suspicion that the Serbian government, as well as his family and friends, were hiding him.
When security forces finally nabbed Mladic, the general was living in a house owned by a relative -- despite the fact that his family filed a request last year to declare him dead, claiming that he had been absent for seven years. He was using the pseudonym Milorad Komadic, but the general had no beard and was not wearing any disguise. In contrast, Karadzic had grown a long beard and was posing as a specialist in alternative medicine, mostly in Belgrade and in Vienna, Austria, until he was captured.
Mladic became a fugitive after he was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal in 1995 and accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He went into hiding after the arrest of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2001 and was initially concealed in Serbian army facilities, according to military intelligence reports.
In 2006 alone, there were two mistaken reports of his arrest, one in Belgrade and another in Romania, as well as speculation that he had suffered a third stroke and was near death.
And in 2009, the Bosnian version of "60 Minutes" aired home videos of him at a ski resort with two women identified as his wife and daughter-in-law that had allegedly been filmed the year before, though a Serbian government official claimed that the footage was much older.
Mladic's reputation as a Serbian patriot earned him loyalty from his countrymen. In one recent poll, only 14% of Serbians said they would turn him in for a reward of 1.3 million Euros ($1.84 million). And criminal court prosecutors often accused the Serbian government of holding back in its search for the war criminal -- they conducted more than two dozen search operations with nothing more to show for their efforts than some of Mladic's wartime diaries and sound recordings.
To assist in the search, the U.S. sent a team of FBI experts in "fugitive recovery" to Belgrade, along with US marshals who proposed an 11-point plan to nab Mladic -- but they were snubbed by the Serbian government, according to diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
In 2009, American diplomats hinted in the cables that Russia, a Serbian ally, may have aided Mladic and communicated frustration with the Serbian government efforts. "Serbian leaders say one thing in person, another to the international press, and another to their own publics," Maxime Verhagen, then the Dutch foreign minister, told Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs.
In recent years, the international community has dangled membership in the European Union as a way to pressure Serbia to turn over Mladic, to little avail. Many foreign policy observers say the political dynamics in the country have changed enough that Serbian authorities could turn him over without incurring too much collateral damage.
Mladic's capture was especially gratifying to Terree Bowers, a former U.S. Attorney who obtained the original warrant for his arrest. "When I was there getting the warrant, I would never have imagined that it would take 16 years to bring him to justice," he told The Huffington Post. "The reluctance of the Serbian authorities to turn him over is what's taken so long. Today is a good day for justice."
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