BELGRADE Serbia may send Ratko Mladic to face genocide charges in The Hague within four days, a justice official said on Monday, despite rallies by nationalists angry at the Bosnian Serb general's capture after 16 years on the run.
Security agents tracked the fugitive general to a messy Serbian farmhouse belonging to his cousin on Thursday. In so doing they removed a big obstacle to Serbia' bid to join the European Union.
The arrest angered nationalists in Serbia and the Bosnian Serb half of Bosnia.
In Bosnia, several thousand supporters rallied on Monday waving Serbian flags and carrying banners reading: "Keep on, our general, we are with you!" and "Shame on you Tadic! You did not betray Mladic, you betrayed the Serb people," a reference to Serbia's President Boris Tadic who ordered Mladic's arrest.
Mladic's lawyers argue the 69-year-old, found alone surrounded by medications, is mentally unstable and thus too sick to be extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal.
The Hague court indicted Mladic for genocide in the 43-month siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the 1992-95 Bosnian war in 1995.
For seven years after that, Mladic lived openly at his home in Belgrade and often received visitors, Aleksandar Mihailovic, a friend who lived down the street, said on Monday.
"He lived normally until 2002," said Mihailovic, who built Mladic's house, told Reuters. "He loved songs, rakia, eating -- he was a very normal person."
A Belgrade court ruled on Friday that Mladic was fit enough to face trial and served extradition papers. His lawyer Milos Saljic said he plans to appeal that decision "to prolong the extradition as long as possible".
He told reporters he had mailed it late in the day. "I expect the court to review the appeal tomorrow, at the earliest," he said.
The appeal court must respond and forward the final decision to the Justice Ministry which will then rule on the extradition straight away, a process that would take up to four days, said Slobodan Homen, a state secretary.
Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia's chief war crimes prosecutor said: "I have seen Mladic and I believe he is fit for trial ... We will now focus on uncovering the entire network of his helpers."
Many Serbs admire Mladic as a dedicated military man who did not seek to enrich himself during the bitter civil war.
In Bosnia, demonstrators carried pictures and banners reading: "Keep on, our general, we are with you!" and "Shame on you Tadic! You did not betray Mladic, you betrayed the Serb people," a reference to Serbia's President Boris Tadic who ordered Mladic's arrest.
Bosnian Serb Republic President Milorad Dodik said he would raise funds to provide legal assistance to Bosnian Serb war crimes indictees, and expressed his support for the protests.
"The Serb Republic army was an expression of will of the Serb people in Bosnia which defended their survival, homes and rights," he said. "I will do my best to preserve the dignity and reputation of the Serb Republic army, which was an honorable military formation of utmost importance for Bosnian Serbs."
Bosnia remains deeply divided along ethnic lines.
Mladic's friend Mihailovic said the siege of Sarajevo, in which 10,000 died, was a legitimate military operation and as commander responsible for the entire war, Mladic could not have known about the details of the Srebrenica massacre.
He agreed to speak out after receiving the blessing of the Mladic family and some of his arguments could foreshadow the general's defense strategy. Srebrenica survivors say they saw Mladic moments before the executions.
Serbian authorities said they detained 180 people who had attacked police and injured 32 officers in Belgrade during a pro-Mladic rally on Sunday organised by the Serbian Radical Party, whose leader is on trial in The Hague.
Many of those at the rally were young people, some not even born during the Bosnian war.
Mladic's son and grandchildren, who live in Belgrade, visited him in prison on Monday. At the Sunday rally, Darko Mladic said his father was a defender of his people.
(Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic and Snezana Kusovac in Belgrade and Reuters TV and Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo; editing by Jon Hemming and Elizabeth Fullerton)