Mladic's Arrest Rankles Serbia Yet Offers Opportunity

The former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic was arrested in Serbia this past week. He is wanted by an international tribunal in Yugoslavia for genocide and war crimes, and he could be extradited to face trial in The Hague as soon as Monday. His arrest, after a 16-year man hunt, is unpopular with Serb nationalists, but it removes a major obstacle to Serbia starting the process of joining the European Union. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us from Belgrade.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Former Bosnian Serb Army Commander Ratko Mladic could be extradited to the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal tomorrow or Tuesday. He's charged with genocide for the Srebrenica massacre and seize of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. Mladic was arrested this past week after 16 years as a fugitive. Security has been stepped up throughout Serbia ahead of a rally later today by ultra-nationalist Serbs protesting his arrest.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us from Belgrade. Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: Is Mladic resisting extradition to The Hague?

POGGIOLI: Well, his lawyers say he's aware he's going to be going there but first he wants to get better. Mladic is a shadow of the burly, arrogant military commander who strutted in front of cameras during the Bosnian war. He's had two strokes and one arm is paralyzed. But the deputy war crimes prosecutors here says he's just trying to delay extradition.

When Mladic appeared before a judge after his arrest, he was talkative and bossy. He says he doesn't recognize the war crimes tribunal's authority and said I never killed anyone. He asked for strawberries and novels by the Russian writer Tolstoy. He also wanted to visit the tomb of his daughter, Anna, who committed suicide during the war with her father's own gun. It was said then she couldn't bear what her father was doing. But the visit was denied.

HANSEN: Have any more details emerged about how his arrest came about?

POGGIOLI: Well, Serb officials are suggesting that people close to Mladic had been under surveillance and led police to his hideout. But many people I've talked to believe there was simply a tip-off. What's certain is that since the 2008 government change in Belgrade, Mladic lost the protection of a network of allies in the security service. Several of them had been arrested.

When captured, Mladic was living in a cousin's farmhouse in a small village north of Belgrade. He was apparently broke, living in shabby, dirty conditions. He had two guns with him but he did not resist the arrest.

HANSEN: Now, how are Serbs reacting?

POGGIOLI: There have been a few small protests, mostly by young soccer hooligans. And a rally is planned this evening and police will be out in large numbers. But more generally, there's resignation. Serbs may not be overwhelmingly happy over his capture but they're not obsessed by it. Nevertheless, for years many Serbs viewed Mladic as the defender of Serbian nationhood.

And I have a chilling memory of him in May 1993. The Bosnian-Serb assembly was about to approve the peace plan drawn up by the U.S. and British diplomat Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was also there pressing for approval. Suddenly, Mladic stormed into the room and rolled out giant maps of Bosnia covered with small crosses. In a fiery speech, he said, wherever a Serb is buried, that is Serbian land. So, the plan was speedily rejected and that prolonged the war for more than two years and it ended with the massacre of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica under Mladic's command.

HANSEN: The process of international justice at The Hague has been very slow. Milosevic's trial was underway for five years when he died. What's going to happen with Mladic's trial?

POGGIOLI: Well, it could be very quick. With Milosevic, the problem was proving direct responsibility in genocide. That won't be the case with Mladic, thanks to his old war diaries discovered here a year ago. More than 3,000 pages show his obsession with detail and every conversation he had during the war. His own diaries could prove the chief prosecution witness against Mladic.

And now, Liane, I know this is your last day and I want to wish you all the best. And I want to express my appreciation for the attention you and your program always showed for international news and for this Balkan saga in particular. When I was covering the start of the breakup of Yugoslavia, it was you and Wi Sun(ph) that first showed curiosity for events that were really too distant and too complicated for most of the media. I want to thank you because you helped us explain and put the focus on this very tragic story.

HANSEN: Oh, thank you for that, Sylvia. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking to us from Belgrade. Thanks again.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Liane.

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