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Bosnian Serb leader arrested

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LAZAREVO, Serbia (AP) - Ratko Mladic, the ruthless Bosnian Serb military leader charged with orchestrating Europe's worst massacre of civilians since World War II, was arrested before dawn at a relative's home in a tiny Serbian village on Thursday after a 16-year hunt for the architect of what a war-crimes judge called "scenes from hell."

He appeared Thursday evening at a closed session in a Belgrade court, looking frail and walking very slowly as he was escorted by four guards in the first step of the extradition process. He wore a navy-blue jacket and a baseball hat with gray hair sticking out the sides, and carried what appeared to be a towel in his left hand. He could be heard on state TV saying "good day" to someone in the court. A guard could be heard telling him, "Let's go, general."

Mladic's lawyer said the judge cut short the questioning because the suspect's "poor physical state" left him unable to communicate. Attorney Milos Saljic said Mladic asserts that he will not answer to the authority of the U.N. war-crimes tribunal in the Netherlands.

"He is aware that he is under arrest, he knows where he is and he said he does not recognize The Hague tribunal," Saljic said.

Mladic's arrest removed the most important barrier to the Western-leaning Serbian government's efforts to join the European Union and to rehabilitate the country's image as a pariah state that sheltered the men responsible for the worst atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Mladic had two pistols when he was arrested but offered no resistance, and he appeared shrunken and pale, Serbian officials and media said. Serbia raised its national security level and banned all gatherings after nationalist groups pledged to pour into the streets in protest.

"We have ended a difficult period of our history and removed the stain from the face of Serbia and the members of our nation wherever they live," President Boris Tadic said in a triumphant press conference announcing the arrest. A Serbian official close to Tadic told The Associated Press that the president had personally overseen the arrest operation, and compared it to President Barack Obama's involvement in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Obama hailed the arrest and said Mladic must now answer to his victims in court.

"May the families of Mladic's victims find some solace in today's arrest, and may this deepen the ties among the people of the region," Obama said.
Mladic, 69, faces life imprisonment if tried and convicted of genocide and other charges. The U.N. court has no death penalty.

International law experts said they hoped the arrest would send a message to figures like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi that no leader charged with a war crime could expect to escape justice forever.

The U.N. war crimes prosecutor was due early next month to give the United Nations a report critical of Serbia's lack of cooperation with the hunt for Mladic and other fugitives. The Netherlands used the reports to justify blocking Serbia's efforts to join the EU.

"Impunity has really been withdrawn from war criminals," said Richard Goldstone, the prosecutor who indicted Mladic along with former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 1995. "It's a very different world, and the prospects of them standing trial one day have been heightened considerably."

Foremost among the horrors Mladic is charged with is the July 1995 slaughter of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which was supposed to be a safe zone guarded by Dutch peacekeepers.

A bullnecked field commander with narrow, piercing blue eyes, Mladic seized the town and was seen handing candy to Muslim children in the town's square. He assured them everything would be fine and patted one boy on the head. Hours later, his men began days of killing, rape and torture.

War crimes tribunal judge Fouad Riad said during Mladic's 1995 indictment in absentia that the court had seen evidence of "unimaginable savagery: thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson."

"These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history," he said.

But even as Balkan war-crimes fugitives such as Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were brought to The Hague, Mladic was idolized and sheltered by ultranationalists and ordinary Serbs despite a 10 million euro ($14 million) Serbian government bounty, plus $5 million offered by the U.S. State Department.

He was known to have made daring forays into Belgrade to watch soccer games and feast on fish at an elite restaurant.

In a particularly brazen touch, he had been using the alias Milorad Komadic, an anagram of his true identity, police said.

Before sunrise, agents of Serbia's domestic intelligence agency moved quietly on Mladic's hideout, a single-story yellow brick house owned by a relative of the fugitive's mother, said Radmilo Stanisic, the de facto mayor of Lazarevo, a village of some 2,000 residents about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Belgrade.

"They didn't even wake us up," said a resident who identified himself only as Zoran. "I'm furious. They arrested our hero."

A sign reading "Mladic Hero" was posted on the entrance of the village as police vehicles guarded the house where Mladic was arrested.

Rasim Ljajic, a government minister in charge of cooperation with the U.N. tribunal, said "Mladic looked like an old man" when he was arrested.

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

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