Mladic's Serbian supporters in new act of defiance

BELGRADE, May 26 (Reuters) - Several hundred Radical Party followers gathered in Belgrade on Saturday to show their support for war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, whose arrest is a key condition for Serbia's candidacy to join the European Union.

Radicals in T-shirts with the image of the fugitive Bosnian Serb army general cheered as Party Secretary General Aleksandar Vucic posted a fake street sign inscribed Ratko Mladic Boulevard on a Belgrade street named after reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, assassinated by hardliners in 2003.

"We came here to put up signs with Ratko Mladic's name to show that we love Serbia," Vucic said.

The demonstrators also stuck up their posters on the building housing Serbian independent radio and television channel B92, which they hate.

The stunt was an act of defiance by the ultranationalist Radicals, following the arrest of two supporters last week for plastering Djindjic Boulevard with Ratko Mladic Boulevard stickers a day before verdicts were handed down in the trial of the late premier's assassins.

No one was arrested on this occasion. Vucic is a member of parliament who enjoys a degree of immunity.

All 12 accused of killing Djindic were found guilty and the two ringleaders received maximum jail sentences of 40 years each. But many Serbs wonder if they were the instigators of the March 2003 assassination or simply the executioners.

Former Bosnian commander Mladic is wanted by the United Nations war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague for genocide at Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed, and for 10,000 deaths in the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo.

Mladic has avoided arrest since 2001. Hague prosecutor Carla Del Ponte says he is hiding in Belgrade, helped by diehards with contacts in the army and security services.

Many ordinary Serbs exposed to years of state propaganda believe Mladic is a hero and an honourable soldier, and that to hand him over would be a craven act of betrayal.

"We came here today to show respect for Ratko Mladic," said 27-year-old student Dejan Markovic.

The EU froze talks on an association agreement a year ago. It says the new Serbian government sworn in a week ago must arrest Mladic before it can hope to sign a deal beginning the lengthy process of joining the European Union.

During the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, amid war and international sanctions against Serbia, Radio B92 was the most outspoken critic of the regime of the late Slobodan Milosevic.

For many Serbs who identified with the regime, it was seen as a mouthpiece of western propaganda directed at Serbia.