Serbia Finally “Willing” to Catch Fugitives

But analysts say Belgrade authorities will have a tough job tracking them down.

Serbia Finally “Willing” to Catch Fugitives

But analysts say Belgrade authorities will have a tough job tracking them down.

Wednesday, 10 December, 2008

The remaining two fugitives may not be able to escape trial at the Hague tribunal for much longer now that Serbia seems to be willing to do whatever it takes to track them down.

While Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic are considered skilled at deception and are thought have a formidable and tight-knit network of helpers, Serb officials say they have the entire state security structures after them.

“Unfortunately, we still don’t have a trace that would lead us to Mladic, but we are doing everything we can to find him,” said Rasim Ljajic, president of the Serbian National Council for Cooperation with the Tribunal.

Zoran Dragisic, professor at the Faculty for Security in Belgrade, told IWPR he believed that Belgrade was now making genuine attempts to find the suspects.

“[A] lack of political will is not a problem any more and the Serbian government will send him to The Hague if they find him,” he said.

Although Mladic and Hadzic have evaded capture for years, recent arrests of other war crimes suspects have raised hopes in The Hague that the two men may finally be running out of time.

Zdravko Tolimir, ex-assistant commander in charge of information and safety within the main staff of the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, was arrested on May 31, 2007 in Bosnia. Police apprehended him in the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska as he allegedly tried to cross into Serbia.

Stojan Zupljanin, a former police chief from the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, was arrested on June 11 this year in a rented apartment in Pancevo, a Belgrade suburb.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, meanwhile, was arrested in Serbia’s capital on July 21 this year, although the details of his capture remain obscure.

Yet while many have taken heart from these arrests, analysts warn that catching the final two indictees will not be easy – and will mean hours of painstaking police work to trace those people helping them hide.

Milos Vasic, reporter and security analyst at the Belgrade weekly Vreme, explained those measures normally taken by fugitives to evade arrest.

“The best way to hide is in a big city, such as Belgrade, Novi Sad or Nis,” he said.

“You should have convincing false documents, pretend to be a retired sergeant, lose some weight… grow a moustache, wear glasses, do not use the phone and cut off all contacts with former friends and relatives.”

Mladic and Hadzic’s security backgrounds means they are likely to prove formidable opponents for the teams assigned to track them down, said Vasic.

However, this does not make the men invulnerable, he added.

“I think that if the police search focuses on the issuing of false documents, they will get a result,” he said.

In the cases of Tolimir, Zupljanin, and Karadzic, police discovered records showing that someone must have issued them with false IDs. There is also evidence that Mladic was issued with such documents at some point.

He pointed out that the search to trace the record of this could take some time, though.

“It is hard, because it is necessary to review the documentation of all the organs of internal affairs in Serbia…All records of personal cards [by] the police have to be checked thoroughly, and that’s a huge job.”

Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander, and Hadzic, ex-president of a breakaway Serb state in Croatia, were indicted by the war crimes tribunal for war crimes committed during the Balkan wars of 1991-5.

Their capture is a key condition of Serbia achieving closer integration with the European Union. Certain members of the bloc are demanding a positive report from tribunal chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz before they will progress with negotiations.

In a report leaked to the media last week, Brammertz reportedly said Serbia has made “notable progress in cooperation with the tribunal”.

However, while he is said to have praised efforts made to track down Karadzic and Zupljanin, he also reportedly chided Serbia for failing to apprehend Mladic and Hadzic.

Over the last 13 years, journalists have constantly speculated about Mladic’s hiding place and the network which has enabled him to remain at large for so long. Occasionally, there would be reported sighting on the street, in a pub, at a football match, or in an army barracks.

Yet in spite of this, police officers have consistently failed to find him.

Observers say that the authorities have failed to locate Mladic in the past because they lacked control of the army and state security structures, allowing senior officers to shield their former comrader.

Until June 1, 2002, the former general lived in an army base in Serbia and only left when the country adopted legislation on cooperation with the Hague tribunal.

Some media have reported that he was then sheltered by retired army officers.

According to a report by Serbia's Supreme Defence Council, SDC, Mladic lived in various apartments in Belgrade until January 2006 when the trail went cold. This report was mentioned in the indictment of ten people arrested in 2006 for helping to hide Mladic. While one suspect, retired colonel Jovo Djogo, has since died, the remaining nine are now on trial in a Belgrade court.

As for Hadzic, police tried without success to negotiate his arrest with his family in 2005.

Goran Petrovic, former head of the Serbian secret police, told IWPR that Mladic had protection at the very highest level until Vojislav Kostunica, the last president of Yugoslavia, lost his post as Serbian prime minister earlier this year.

“President Vojislav Kostunica and the top officers in the Yugoslav army were protecting Mladic. Mladic’s biggest protector and helper was Kostunica,” he said.

Kostunica has denied having any knowledge of Mladic's whereabouts.

Petrovic said that the government must now try and uncover those who have been protecting him.

He said that the arrest of Mladic would no longer pose a threat to security or create instability in the region.

“Now it is purely a technical question. I think Mladic’s arrest would not create any security risks for Serbia at the moment and I presume that he’s being protected only by his supporters and former army comrades, retired officers and businessmen,” he said.

Dragisic said that he thought that most of those concealing Mladic were no longer in the security services.

“His former army friends are hiding him,” he said. “When you know who is helping him, you will know where he is.”

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Belgrade.

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