BELGRADE, (Reuters) – Bosnian Serb wartime president Radovan Karadzic, wanted for genocide and crimes during the Bosnian war, was arrested near Belgrade after 11 years on the run, in disguise and working as a doctor.
Karadzic’s arrest was one of the main conditions of Serbian progress towards European Union membership and may be enough to secure Serbia closer ties with the EU and possibly the status of membership candidate state this year.
Serbian officials said on Tuesday Karadzic was arrested on Monday near Belgrade. They showed reporters a photograph of an unrecognisable Karadzic, thin and with a long, white beard and flowing hair. He was working for a private doctor, posing as a specialist in alternative medicine, said Rasim Ljajic, Serbia’s point man for cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal.
Officials said he had been living in New Belgrade. “He happily, freely walked around the city,” Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic told reporters. “Even the people he rented a flat from were unaware of his identity.”
Serbian President Boris Tadic said in a terse statement on Monday that Karadzic had been detained.
People poured in celebration onto the streets of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital which Karadzic’s troops shelled mercilessly in a 43-month siege during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. “I called and woke up my whole family,” said Sarajevo resident Fadil Bico as cars honked horns and Bosnian state radio played excerpts of Karadzic’s wartime hate speeches.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said his arrest showed Belgrade was cooperating fully with the U.N. war crimes tribunal. An EU foreign ministers meeting on Tuesday was to discuss closer ties with the new pro-Western government.
Serbian government sources said Karadzic had been under surveillance in Serbia for several weeks after a tip-off from a foreign intelligence service.
Karadzic was indicted along with his army commander, General Ratko Mladic, for genocide at Srebrenica, where some 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim males were rounded up and murdered and bulldozed into mass graves in July 1995. He is also charged with authorising the shooting of civilians during the Sarajevo siege in which an estimateed 11,000 people were killed.
Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. Balkan troubleshooter during the wars of the 1990s’ described Karadzic as the Osama bin Laden of Europe, “a real, true architect of mass murder”.
Karadzic went underground more than a year after Holbrooke negotiated the 1995 Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia and following the deployment of a huge force of NATO peacekeepers in early 1996.
His arrest leaves two war crimes suspects still wanted by the Hague tribunal. “The arrest of Radovan Karadzic is confirmation that every criminal will eventually face justice,” said Munira Subasic, head of a Srebrenica widow’s association. “I hope that people who had to keep quiet because of Karadzic will start revealing the locations of mass graves and let us find the truth about our beloved ones,” she said.
EU members who say Serbia must hand over all war crimes suspects are likely to see the arrest as proof Karadzic’s fellow genocide suspect, fugitive wartime commander Mladic, can also be seized if Belgrade has the political will to face down hardline nationalists.
The new government is an odd-couple alliance of President Tadic’s pro-Western Democratic Party and the Socialists of the late Slobodan Milosevic, who died in detention at the Hague war crimes prison before del Ponte could obtain a conviction.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Serbian authorities for taking a “decisive step toward ending impunity” of those indicted for crimes in Balkan conflicts.
Serbian officials said Karadzic had been served with the indictment and had three days to reply. He is then expected to be transferred to The Hague tribunal.
Karadzic is still seen by militant nationalists as a national saviour following the collapse of Yugoslavia. “This is payback to the EU for bringing this new government to power,” said Aleksandar Vucic of the nationalist Radicals, one of Serbia’s strongest parties. “Karadzic is a Serbian hero. There will be a strong backlash.”