BELGRADE (Reuters) - Ratko Mladic, who has been arrested in Serbia, is accused of orchestrating the methodical slaughter of up to 8,000 Muslims from the Bosnian “safe area” of Srebrenica, in the worst massacre in Europe since World War Two.
The dead were bulldozed into mass graves over four days.
It was the horrific culmination of a 3-1/2-year conflict in which the beefy general pounded the besieged city of Sarajevo daily with the artillery, tanks, mortars and heavy machineguns of his Bosnian Serb army, killing 10,000.
The alleged goal was “ethnic cleansing” — the forcible expulsion of Bosnian Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs to clear Bosnian lands for a Greater Serbia.
It was a conspiracy, according to the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, in which he was aided, armed and abetted by former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, together with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
Both Mladic and Karadzic, his political master, were indicted for war crimes in 1995. They are still the poster boys of an obstinate core of aggressive Serb chauvinism.
Karadzic, who was captured in 2008 in Belgrade living under a new identity, and Mladic topped the tribunal’s wanted list for years after Western powers ended the war. But until Milosevic was toppled in October 2000, the general lived securely, if discreetly, in Belgrade.
Milosevic died in detention on March 11, 2006, a few months before a verdict in his four-year trial for genocide and other war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Karadzic is now in prison in The Hague and on trial on war crimes charges.
Despite outside pressure, pro-Western reformists in power in Belgrade apparently did not dare to make a move against Mladic. Until 2003 he was said to be getting treatment at a top military hospital.
Sporadic sightings put him at a horse race or a soccer game. In 2004, NATO said it had proof he had had drinks with old comrades at his former HQ bunker in Han Pijesak, Bosnia.
Serbia was under relentless pressure to show it was at least trying to grab a fugitive whose arrest would convince the world it was serious about confronting war crimes.
After pro-Western reformer Boris Tadic became president of Serbia in mid-2004, the pressure increased.
When two sentries guarding an army complex in Belgrade were shot dead in October 2004, newspapers said they were silenced because they had spotted Mladic being sheltered there.
The army Mladic created to fight in Bosnia was a model of ruthlessness, daring and brutality in the Serb warrior tradition once prized in the life-or-death struggle against Nazi Germany.
He had a cameraman film its blitz on the encircled enclave of Srebrenica, to show him extolling his “lads” and haranguing the hapless Dutch U.N. peacekeepers who misguidedly accepted his solemn word that the inhabitants would be safe in his hands.
When NATO tried in 1995 to rein in his forces with the threat of limited air strikes, his troops defiantly seized U.N. peacekeepers as human shields, chaining them to likely targets.
Everything the army did in battle bore the imprint of its commander and arch-strategist. Western officers who dealt with him in the days when even-handedness was official policy came to regret shaking his hand or sharing a photograph.
In November 1996 Mladic and top generals gave in to strong Western pressure that he step down as ordered by Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, who succeeded Karadzic and is now serving a jail term for her role in war crimes.
In this macho, hard-drinking world, their humiliation was compounded by the fact that they were purged by a woman, who described Karadzic in her memoirs published in 2005 as a money-hungry “coward” — but called Mladic a hero.
The son of a World War Two partisan fighter killed in 1945, Mladic was an officer in the old communist Yugoslav Federal Army (JNA) when Yugoslavia’s disintegration began in 1991.
When Bosnian Serbs rose in 1992 against Bosnia’s Muslim-led secession, Mladic was picked to command the new Bosnian Serb army that swiftly overran 70 percent of the country.
Dozens of towns were besieged with heavy weapons that once belonged to the JNA and villages were burned down as 22,000 troops of the U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR) stood by more or less helplessly, with orders not to take sides.
A combination of Western pressure and covert American arms and training for Croats and Muslims turned the tide against Mladic’s army, ultimately deprived of equipment and fuel supplies from Serbia. Determined NATO strikes did the rest.
Mladic, a political player in his own right and notoriously impatient of civilian authority, had already become an albatross for a Bosnian Serb leadership now internationally on the ropes.
Diplomats believe he shaped the conflict more than any other individual, until Milosevic reasserted his authority in 1995 and insisted on peace.
Writing by Douglas Hamilton, editing by Tim Pearce