BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia arrested the last major war crimes suspect from the 1990s Yugoslav conflicts on Wednesday, closing what its president called a “burdensome” page in the country’s history and boosting its hopes of joining the European Union.
Goran Hadzic, a Croatian Serb wartime leader indicted for crimes against humanity during the 1991-95 Croatian war, was seized by Serb forces in the Fruska Gora national park region about 65 km (40 miles) north of Belgrade.
“We nabbed him while he was about to meet a helper. He had changed his appearance somewhat and had fake papers on him,” an operative familiar with the case told Reuters. “He did not resist arrest, but we were ready for all contingencies.”
The arrest of the 52-year-old is key for the European union future of Serbia because it removes the shadow of war crimes that has plagued Belgrade’s bid for membership.
“I will be looking our European counterparts in the eye and seeing whether they make good on what they have promised,” Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters.
A stolen painting said to be by Italian figurative artist Amedeo Modigliani gave prosecutors an essential clue in finding Hadzic, Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor said.
“The breakthrough was information that he wanted to sell a stolen Modigliani painting as he was running out of money,” Vladimir Vukcevic told a news conference.
Hadzic, 52, was a key figure in the breakaway Krajina Serb republic in Croatia, and after the arrest of wartime Serb General Ratko Mladic earlier this year, he was the last suspect sought by the United Nations war crime tribunal in The Hague.
“We have closed a burdensome and gloomy page of our history,” said Tadic. “We did this for the people of Serbia, for other nations, for the victims and for reconciliation.”
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic welcomed the arrest.
“This is a contribution to justice and a contribution to better relations between the countries in the region,” he told Reuters. “And I think it is good for Serbia to go through a certain catharsis with regards to the developments in the past war.”
The European Union, which hailed Belgrade for finding Mladic in May, had insisted on Hadzic’s arrest for Serbia to progress toward European Union membership.
“This is a further important step for Serbia in realizing its European perspective and equally crucially for international justice,” three top EU officials said in a joint statement welcoming the arrest.
The White House said it hoped Hadzic’s arrest would “bring some much needed closure to the victims of the crimes committed in Croatia, and their families, and elsewhere in the region.”
“It also serves as yet another reminder to those around the world who carry out terrible crimes that their day, too, will come,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
Tadic said Serbian security agents arrested Hadzic near the village of Krusedol, a short drive from the Croatian town where he was born. The surrounding area of Fruska Gora contains many holiday homes and 16 Serbian Orthodox monasteries.
Age, rather than elaborate disguise, had altered Hadzic. State run RTS TV showed footage of him during the arrest having lost much of his hair, put on weight and with a mustache but no trademark beard. He wore rimless glasses.
Tadic did not say where he had been hiding but said Hadzic was not arrested in a monastery or a military barracks.
Parts of the military had helped Mladic evade arrest for years and the Serbian Orthodox church played a controversial role in the Yugoslav wars, often stoking the flames of nationalism against Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, who largely have the same south Slav roots as the Serbs.
Hadzic is charged with ordering the killing of hundreds and the deportation of thousands of Croats and other non-Serbs from the region of Croatia he took over, including from Vukovar, a city still bearing deep scars 16 years after the end of the war.
“Of course the arrest of Hadzic is good news for humanity and the whole world, but first and foremost for us in Croatia,” Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said in Warsaw.
For years Hadzic was overshadowed by the higher profile ethnic Serb fugitives Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and his military commander Mladic. Hadzic may ultimately be remembered mostly as the man who evaded justice longer than others charged with crimes in the 1990s Yugoslav wars.
“He is much more discreet than the others in terms of personality and what he did,” said Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, a member of European Parliament who served during the war with U.N. forces in the region of Croatia where Hadzic was a regional leader. “He was not a particularly notable personality.”
Both NATO and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a former E.U. and U.N. Envoy to the region, said it closed an important chapter in recent European history.
“I warmly congratulate Serbia,” Bildt said.
The Netherlands, which hosts the war crimes tribunal and had blocked Serbia’s bid to join the EU until all suspects were handed over, said the arrest was a “good step” but that Serbia also needed to tackle corruption and economic reform.
U.N. war crimes prosecutor Serge Brammertz said Hadzic was expected to be extradited to the court in The Hague within days, the last of the 161 suspects indicted by the court to be transferred.
“We can now say that no indicted person has successfully evaded the tribunal’s judicial process. This is a precedent of enduring significance,” Brammertz said.
Hadzic’s lawyer Toma Fila told Reuters his client would not fight the extradition: “He will be visited by family in the next couple of days and will be most likely ready to go by Saturday.”
Hadzic lived openly in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad until July 2004, when The Hague sent an indictment and arrest warrant to Belgrade. He fled immediately, tipped off by nationalist hardliners in Serbia’s security services.
In an interview, his lawyer said he had been out of the country for most of the last seven years, but did not say where.
Hadzic, an ex-warehouse foreman who rose to prominence as a Serb nationalist activist in early 1990s, also gained notoriety for his involvement in murky deals including illegal exports of oak, stolen cars, wine and crude oil from a well under Serb control.
He was frequently seen in the company of Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, a paramilitary leader and then head of Belgrade’s underworld.
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina, Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels and Laura MacInnis in Washington; editing by Philippa Fletcher