Bosnian Serb Army Leader at Large: Indicted War Criminal Ratko Mladic Enjoying Leisurely Retirement

By Renate Flottau

Indicted war criminal and former Serb general Ratko Mladic has brazenly eluded capture for 13 years, living the comfortable life of a pensioner in Belgrade. Politicians, the army and -- it now appears -- Western intelligence services have been helping him the whole time.

The Luda Kuca café is located on Yuri Gagarin Street in New Belgrade, a satellite town of concrete high-rise apartment blocks. Luda Kuca means "crazy house" -- a fitting name for the café. Until recently, one of its regulars was a bearded faith-healer with a penchant for singing Serb hymns late at night as he sat at one of the café's three tables. The singer's name was Radovan Karadzic. Today the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs is in jail in The Hague facing trial for war crimes.

Nothing has changed in Luda Kuca since Karadzic stopped coming. His picture still hangs on the wall alongside portraits of Serbian ex-president Slobodan Milosevic and Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military chief who has been on the run since 1995, when an international warrant was issued for his arrest. Mladic stands accused of crimes against humanity for the slaughter of thousands of Muslims during the Bosnian War. The stocky former general was once hailed as a hero. Today most Serbs would rather see him in the dock alongside Karadzic and all the others.

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Photo Gallery: Ratko Mladic Evades Capture
While Mladic remains at large, Serbia has no hope of becoming a member of the European Union and thus making economic progress. But Mladic is an expert at fooling his would-be captors, and in so doing he is holding his entire country to ransom.

Just like Karadzic, Mladic often sought refuge in one of the anonymous tower blocks of New Belgrade. But it was only one of many hideouts. The ex-general has friends in high places -- fellow officers, loyal politicians, and businessmen from the upper classes of Belgrade society have all protected the now 67-year-old. They enabled the "Butcher of Srebrenica," whose soldiers massacred some 8,000 Muslim men and boys aged between 12 and 77 in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995, to enjoy the leisurely life of a pensioner.

However the Serb government is coming under increasing pressure both at home and from abroad. Social Affairs Minister Rasim Ljajic, the cabinet member responsible for cooperating with the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, claims the Mladic problem will be solved "by the end of the year." And Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia's highest war crimes prosecutor, told fellow Serbs that Mladic would soon be arrested. The only question seems whether he will be taken dead or alive.

Video Shows Mladic Dancing and Singing With Friends

Serbian investigators certainly haven't been short of leads up to now. In June Bosnian television aired video recordings from "confidential sources" showing an evidently carefree Ratko Mladic with silver-grey hair dancing, toasting friends, singing with outstretched arms, and happily enjoying a snowball fight dressed in a skiing outfit in a winter landscape. A single raid on a Mladic-family apartment in December 2008 netted investigators no fewer than 215 video tapes and CDs containing a host of evidence of the man's whereabouts.

Former Yugoslav Lieutenant Colonel Srboljub Nikolic has confirmed that high-ranking Serb politicians and army officers constantly knew the fugitive's location at least until 2002.

It wasn't until May of that year -- fully six years after his arrest warrant was issued -- that then Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic ordered Mladic to leave the military barracks in Belgrade. A former bodyguard testified that before 2002, the general enjoyed the protection of 50 soldiers at the barracks, men officially put at his disposal by the Serb government. However, the bodyguard added that this was not to shield him from state prosecutors, but from bounty hunters attracted by the $5 million reward offered by the United States for his arrest.

Even after his bodyguards had been withdrawn in May 2002, Mladic continued to move freely around the country. The closest he came to being in real danger was in March 2003, when Serb leader Zoran Djindjic -- frustrated by failed mediation to convince Mladic to give himself up -- promised then-chief UN war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte that Mladic would soon be arrested. Although Djindjic's move was unpopular at home, he hoped it would secure Serbia's future within the EU.

In an interview back in 1996, Mladic had warned potential pursuers they would "pay dearly" if they tried to bring him to justice. A few days after making his promise to Del Ponte, Djindjic was murdered. At the time of the assassination, Mladic was hiding in the house of a friend, a general who lived near the airport in a suburb of Belgrade.

Social Affairs Minister Ljajic admits that in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, the Serbs had been afraid that attempts to arrest Mladic would end in a bloody shootout between the police and the army, which was still loyal to Mladic. As a result, the government in Belgrade spent years inventing one excuse after another to win time with the international community. It was claimed he had fled to Russia, that his fingerprints had disappeared from the files, that he had suffered a stroke and was dying. Whenever Brussels or The Hague stepped up the pressure, the Serbs made minor concessions, expressing a willingness to hand over other wanted war criminals.

One of these was General Zdravko Tolimir; a close friend of Mladic. He was Mladic's quartermaster and headed his network of helpers until he was arrested in May 2007. To avoid protests in Serbia, security forces bundled Tolimir out of his house in Belgrade with a black bag over his head, and whisked him over the border into Bosnia. Officials later announced Tolimir had been arrested in Bosnia.

Even so, the Belgrade media did wonder how it was possible that surveillance teams watching Tolimir hadn't also gained evidence about the man he was hiding.

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