BELGRADE (Reuters) - Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic saw himself as a defender of Serbs but ended up one of the world’s most wanted men, hiding from charges of genocide behind a long white beard and a false identity.
More than 20 years since the start of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, Karadzic laid out his defense on Tuesday at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
He rejected any wrongdoing, saying he should be praised for promoting peace, not accused of murdering thousands.
A professional psychiatrist and amateur poet of humble origins, Karadzic was president of the self-declared Bosnian Serb Republic.
Of the six republics that made up federal Yugoslavia, Bosnia was to pay the highest price in lives for independence and Serbs under him were held responsible for most of the 100,000 deaths.
The Hague tribunal indicted Karadzic in July 1995 for authorizing the shooting of unarmed civilians in Sarajevo and making hostages of U.N. peacekeepers.
He was indicted again four months later for orchestrating the slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men after Serb forces seized the U.N.’s Srebrenica “safe area” in eastern Bosnia.
Karadzic protested his innocence and dismissed the tribunal as a “political court”. But in 1997, having lost power, he went underground and loyalists saw him as savior of the Serbs, a hero hounded by foreign powers.
He was arrested on a bus in Belgrade in July 2008 after 11 years on the run, disguised as a new age healer with a flowing beard and going by the name Dragan Babic. He had grown out his floppy bouffant and tied it in a knot.
Karadzic was born on June 19, 1945, in a mountain hamlet in Montenegro and raised in poverty by parents who despised the communist rule of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito.
His father was a Serb nationalist fighter who was wounded by Tito’s partisans at the close of World War Two and imprisoned.
As a youth, Karadzic moved to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and qualified as a psychiatrist specializing in neurosis and depression. At one point he treated the Sarajevo football club.
He published poetry and lived well in the city but was never fully accepted by its intellectual elite and prominent writers.
As multi-ethnic Yugoslavia began to crack in the late 1980s after Tito’s death, firebrand Slobodan Milosevic was whipping up nationalist fervor among Serbs and Karadzic was befriending the academics and writers who spoke of creating a Greater Serbia.
Milosevic’s proteges chose him to lead a new Serb Democratic Party (SDS) in Bosnia. He was meant to be a stopgap but proved savvy and stayed in power.
As Yugoslavia went on unraveling, Karadzic’s party helped arm Serbs across Bosnia and set up autonomous regions with help from the Yugoslav army and police.
On the eve of war in 1992, Karadzic warned against plans to declare Bosnia a sovereign state. It would lead the country into hell and perhaps “make the Muslim people disappear, because the Muslims cannot defend themselves if there is war”, he said.
War came and Bosnian Serb forces backed by Yugoslavia seized 70 percent of Bosnia, expelling or killing the Muslims in many towns. Their methods provoked disgust and by 1994 Karadzic was starting to lose support where it counted.
Milosevic, who died in The Hague in March 2006 while on trial for genocide, masterminded the war in Bosnia using Karadzic as a frontman. As world outrage grew over the daily slaughter, he turned peacemaker and made Karadzic his fall-guy.
Milosevic signed the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace settlement in December 1995, sidelining Karadzic, who denounced it and defied demands to leave office until international pressure forced him to resign in July 1996.
Behind the scenes, he worked on to sabotage the accord.
But when NATO troops began capturing war crimes suspects in 1997, Karadzic could no longer assume he was safe in the open, even with heavily armed guards. He remained popular, but his wartime influence was gone.
He is said to have spent years in eastern Bosnia where hardline Serbs held sway. Reports, never confirmed, spoke of Orthodox priest disguises and remote monastery hideouts.
In the summer of 2000, he was sighted in Belgrade. In May 2005, his wife, three brothers and two sisters gathered in Montenegro to bury his mother, but tabloid reports that he came in disguise were discounted as fanciful.
Several raids by NATO’s Bosnian mission, SFOR, and later the European Union peacekeeping force EUFOR, targeted the Karadzic support network but usually found little. After the raids, Karadzic posters appeared captioned: “Always with you.”
Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Giles Elgood