An inglorious end for a feared general who turned into feeble old man; no resistance to capture at cousin's home in village; a changing Serbia made life as a fugitive more difficult.

Just before dawn on May 26, 16 years after Ratko Mladic became a fugitive, a dozen police and government cars drove into the village of Lazarevo and put a quiet, discreet end to one of the world's longest manhunts.

It was over so quickly and noiselessly that almost all the inhabitants of the northern Serbian village slept right through — the very opposite to the intense violence that marked the end this month of his fellow fugitive at the top of the world's most wanted list, Osama Bin Laden.

Like bin Laden, the 69-year-old Bosnian Serb had grown old beyond his years in hiding. He was balding and his left arm was paralysed as a result of a stroke several years ago. It is also thought he was suffering from kidney problems. A Serbian government official described him as “hardly walking and seriously ill.” Another said: “He was looking much older than anyone would expect.” Rasim Ljajic, a government minister in charge of co-operation with The Hague war crimes tribunal, said “Mladic looked like an old man” when he was arrested.

“One could pass by him without recognising him,” Ljajic said. “He was pale, which could mean he rarely ventured out of the house, a probable reason why he went unnoticed,” he said.

Ljajic said Mladic had two guns in his possession, but did not resist the arrest and “was co-operative.”

He was arrested by civilian police, who had accompanied agents of the Security Information Agency (known as the BIA) and the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor's Office, who had tracked Mladic down.

He had been under surveillance in Lazarevo for at least two months according to Serbian official sources. They were watching an old man called Milorad Komadic who looked a lot like the notorious general they had been looking for. There was the limp arm, the height, the face, and the blue eyes. Apart from the pseudonym — perhaps deliberately similar to the real name so that it would be easy for an old man to remember — there was no attempt at disguise.

The Karadzic arrest

Mladic's political master from the Bosnian war, Radovan Karadzic, was arrested two years ago on a bus in Belgrade. He had been living as Dragan Dabic, a new-age healer, and had grown a long beard and tied a top-knot in his hair, as a thin disguise.

His general, with whom he had orchestrated the worst crimes in Europe since the Second World War, had made no such efforts. He had grown no beard, nor dyed his hair. He was hiding in plain sight in his cousin Branko's house. Branko was one of several Mladic family members living in the village, and his house had reportedly been searched several times before.

The village is surrounded by the long thin fields that are the mark of the strip-farming techniques still used in that part of the world. Lazarevo lies on the open plains of the Vojvodina, near the Romanian and the Hungarian borders, an area that has long being an ethnic melting pot.

The Mladic clan were among a wave of Bosnian Serbs who have been migrating there since the Second World War, so it was a relatively comfortable place for the old general to hide. In a reflection of local feeling someone had hung up a sign in the village yesterday that said: “Ratko — Hero.”

It seems the 16-year manhunt came to an end, not because Mladic made a mistake, but because time and politics had moved relentlessly against him. One by one, the layers of protection, political and physical, that he had wrapped around himself, fell away leaving a vulnerable old man.

The ultranationalists inside the Serbian security apparatus who had shielded him so assiduously had grown old and retired. Others had been arrested or levered out of their positions by a new generation of Serbs who came into office along with President Boris Tadic, and who were focused on modernising Serbia and dragging it into Europe.

Before then, Mladic had lived something of a charmed life for a hunted man. He slipped from public view in 1995 when Nato forces first arrived in Bosnia leading to the signing of the Dayton peace agreement.

But for the first few years after the war, he was under minimal pressure. The Nato forces patrolling Serb areas made only token gestures towards looking for Mladic, Karadzic and the other war criminals. On the few occasions they knocked on the right door, their quarry had already gone, often tipped off by leaks emanating from Nato member states.

Tony Blair's order

Richard Dicker, the director of the international justice programme at Human Rights Watch, said: “Certainly Nato dropped the ball in carrying out its obligations to carry out the arrests of indicted war criminals. It was a disgraceful history. There was a several-year period when Karadzic would cruise through checkpoints quite openly.” Dicker said that changed when Tony Blair became the U.K.'s Prime Minister in 1997, ordering a more robust search for the fugitives. British special forces took a leading role in tracking them down, along with U.S. special forces under a young, rapidly rising officer called David Petraeus. Mladic and Karadzic, however, escaped the dragnet, with the help of elaborate evasion methods provided by their contacts in Slobodan Milosevic's government.

One senior officer involved in the search described how his unit had tried to follow Karadzic's wife in the hope she would lead them to him. She set off one day in a black Audi with dark windows and the Nato special forces shadowed her. But she disappeared into a covered car park.

“He waited for her to come out, but instead six identical Audis drove out and all went in different directions and we lost her,” the officer recalled.

Ultimately, however, it became impossible for Mladic and Karadzic to stay in Bosnia and both moved to Serbia with the help of their friends in Belgrade.

In the Milosevic era, Mladic was a hero to the Serbian officers with whom he had served in the Yugoslav national army. He lived for several years in the army's Topcider barracks and moved around quite openly in Belgrade, being seen at an international football game in 2000, and at his brother's funeral a year later.

He was guarded by a gang of about 50 armed men, mostly paramilitaries. When he turned up at an event, they would form a cordon around him, even blocking off roads in the manner of a small paramilitary force. It was also said that Mladic himself carried a few hand grenades, intending to blow himself up if anyone tried to grab him. The message was clear enough: Mladic could only be seized at a very high price in blood.

The Dzindzic years

The pressure mounted on Mladic when Milosevic was ousted in a popular uprising in October 2000, and was replaced by a popularly elected and charismatic Prime Minister, Zoran Dzindzic, who vowed to turn the country westwards. In 2002, his government signed an agreement with The Hague tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to turn over Serb war crimes suspects. But that agreement was reached before Dzindzic had anything like full control over the security forces. It turned out he was vulnerable to Mladic. In March 2003, Dzindzic vowed to arrest the former general to help clear the way to EU membership. A few days later he was assassinated by a sniper with links to organised crime and the Serbian secret police.

Under Dzindzic's nationalist successor, Vojislav Kostunica, the hunt continued in theory, but it was half-hearted at best. Mladic moved out of the barracks and into a warren of flats in drab Communist-era blocks along Belgrade's Sava river, according to a report in the New York Times last year. Secret police officers admitted they had known all along where he was, but had received no orders to grab him.

But Mladic's days on the run were numbered with the election of Tadic in 2008, and Serbia turned west once more. Tadic put Sasa Vukadinovic in charge of the BIA and he set to work purging and reorganising the agency with a single aim.

He told the Serbian Parliament last year that catching Serb war crimes suspects was the BIA's “absolute priority,” but in fact it took Vukadinovic two years to turn the agency into a truly effective unit.

“This has been a long process of organisational evolution,” Dicker said. “They could not go after Mladic before without risking a serious backlash if not an attempted coup coming from within the security forces.” In an effort to help Vukadinovic, British intelligence (MI6) and CIA sent officers to Belgrade dedicated to the hunt for the suspect. The presence was acknowledged publicly in 2009 by the Foreign Minister, Vuk Jeremic.

Announcing Mladic's arrest, Tadic acknowledged the investigation was not over entirely.

The last Serb fugitive, Goran Hadzic, a former ethnic Serb leader from the Krajina region of Croatia, is now the focus of the agency's efforts, but Tadic said the BIA would also be targeting the network which supported Mladic, possibly including state officials.

The hunt for Mladic, which reached its zenith with no gunfire and hardly any fuss, has mirrored the transformation of the Serbian state. Arguably, with the arrest of an old man in Lazarevo, Serbia entered a new era as a modern European state. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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