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World Closes in on Bosnian Serb War Criminal

Watch Video

Length: 6:45

General Ratko Mladic

General Ratko Mladic

General Ratko Mladic has made himself scarce. For 10 years he has lived underground, a wanted man, indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for his role in the "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims in Bosnia, including the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995.

Still the missing Mladic went positively viral on the Web this week, with a burst of rumors from Serbia that he had been captured. By the afternoon of February 21, 805 reports of his possible arrest put Mladic at the top of the charts on Google News.

The Associated Press reported that a high-level Serbian government official said Mladic had been arrested in Belgrade, the Serb capital, and was transferred to a NATO base in Bosnia awaiting a flight to the war crimes court in The Hague. Meanwhile, the Serbian press was reporting an entirely different version, saying that Mladic had been located on a remote mountain near the Bosnian border and that intensive negotiations were under way for his surrender.

As you will see in our video excerpt from an interview we conducted with Del Ponte in January 2006, she is convinced that Mladic is hiding in Serbia. She accuses Serbia's military of protecting Mladic, a man many in the Serbian armed forces still consider a hero.

Back at the FRONTLINE/World editing room in Berkeley, California, we were riveted by the speculation. We're in the throes of editing our report on the hunt for Ratko Mladic and the former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, a story slated to air March 28.

Jennifer Glasse, our intrepid correspondent, phoned in from Europe. It was unclear exactly what was going on in Belgrade, but we decided it was time for us to share with the FRONTLINE/World Web audience some of what we had learned during our recent trip to Bosnia and Serbia.

The accompanying video clip is just a rough sample, and Jennifer's narration is a bit muffled -- she literally phoned it in -- but it will give you a feel for what's at stake.

By Tuesday evening the dust had settled on the Mladic rumors but toward the end of the week, they were in full swing once again. As you will see in our video excerpt from an interview we conducted with Del Ponte in January 2006, she is convinced that Mladic is hiding in Serbia. She accuses Serbia's military of protecting Mladic, a man many in the Serbian armed forces still consider a hero. On Thursday, Del Ponte told the BBC that Mladic was within "immediate reach" of the Belgrade authorities, and the latest reports coming out of the Serbian captial say Mladic may be preparing to surrender because of poor health. Amid all this speculation, the noose is certainly closing around Mladic, as it has on others accused of crimes during the mid-1990s war in the former Yugoslavia.

In early 2006, Ante Gotovina, a Croatian indicted for war crimes, was captured in the Canary Islands. This week Argentina extradited to The Hague Tribunal a Serb, Milan Lukic, who is charged with beatings, mass executions and barricading groups of Bosnian women and children in houses that were later set on fire.

Carla Del Ponte

Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte

What Del Ponte, an indefatigable prosecutor, made clear to us is that she is using all the political and diplomatic means at her disposal to bring Mladic and the Bosnian Serb war time leader Karadzic to justice. In December, in a speech to the U.N. Security Council, she castigated the world community for playing a "cat and mouse game" with Europe's most wanted men. She told us that President Bush and other leaders had promised to renew efforts to capture Mladic and Karadzic. Now she is intensely lobbying the European Union to cancel talks that would eventually lead to Serbia becoming part of the E.U., unless the Serbian government turns over the two men most responsible for the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

In Serbia, Del Ponte is concentrating her pressure on Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who has a dubious track record when it comes to international justice. Back in 2001, he bitterly opposed the extradition of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague. In researching the story we will broadcast next month, we met an "insider" -- a former high official in the Serbian secret police -- who tells FRONTLINE/World that Serbian intelligence had a fix on Mladic back in 2001, and that Kostunica personally blocked him from arresting the fugitive general.

"Serbia these days is at a crossroads," journalist Saska Rankovic, an analyst with the Beta news agency, told me from Belgrade yesterday. "Mladic isn't just an ordinary war criminal. He is a huge figure, he is the link between Karadzic and Milosevic, the link between Serbia and [the] Srebrenica [massacre]. It won't be just Mladic on trial, it will be Serbia. And I think what is going on now is an end game, negotiations over what Mladic will say at The Hague, what posture he will take."

"He is a huge figure, he is the link between Karadzic and Milosevic, the link between Serbia and Srebrenica. What is going on now is an end game, negotiations over what Mladic will say at The Hague, what posture he will take."

Rankovic, who has covered this story for years, added: "If Kostunica turns his back on The Hague, and doesn't turn over Mladic by March 1 [when the E.U. talks are slated to begin], there will be a backlash in Serbia because the canceling of Europe talks would be crushing. It means we will stay outside of Europe. The democratic opposition, led by Boris Tadic, will use that failure to say that Kostunica has left Serbia completely isolated. That could force Kostunica to make an alliance with the [ultra-nationalist] Radical Party. Then Serbia will really return to the dark days of Milosevic."

The Radical Party openly lionizes Mladic as a hero. And the group is powerful in Serbia, the biggest block in parliament.

"There are a zillion rumors going on right now," Rankovic told me. "Everyone is calling everyone and floating another theory on Mladic's whereabouts." Rankovic believes one of those rumors has merit. "What I think happened is that there was some kind of plan in the works to slip Mladic into Greece or Russia, and then to capture him. That would have avoided a big embarrassment that he has been hiding in Serbia."

Rankovic does believe that Mladic's days on the run are numbered: "I think it might happen as soon as this weekend, but Kostunica also can't afford [an] arrest, he wants a surrender because he is afraid of a nationalist backlash that might accompany images of an arrest."

The intrigue over Mladic's capture reads like something out of a John Le Carre novel, but the genocide he is responsible for is all too real.

Hasan Nuhanovic

Author Hasan Nuhanovic

In Sarajevo, Jennifer Glasse and I met a Bosnian man, Hasan Nuhanovic, who has just finished a book on how bloodshed could have been avoided in Bosnia if the international community had intervened more decisively. It is more than just an investigation. Nuhanovic's entire family was caught up in the horrific massacre at Srebrenica, when Mladic's forces killed between 7,000 and 9,000 men and boys in a single day in July of 1995.

Part of the indictment against Mladic details how he masterminded the genocide at Srebrenica. "Mladic strutted in the area, falsely reassuring the [Bosnian Muslim] refugees that nothing would happen to them," the indictment declares. "It is hard to imagine a more callous and calculated deception."

As you will see in the video clip, Nuhanovic tells us that his father, Ibro, was an eyewitness to Mladic's deception. He was selected by his fellow refugees -- some 25,000 men, women and children temporarily gathered at a U.N. camp -- to try and ensure their safety in last-minute negotiations with Mladic, whose troops had them surrounded. The face-to-face meeting is captured in a video which we have obtained from The Hague. It is chilling and surreal to watch Mladic alternating between false assurances that he will guarantee the safety of the civilian refugees, and threats to exterminate them.

It is chilling and surreal to watch Mladic alternating between false assurances that he will guarantee the safety of the civilian refugees, and threats to exterminate them.

More than a decade after the Srebrenica massacre, we may finally be drawing close to Mladic's long overdue arrest. And if Mladic is brought before The Hague, Carla Del Ponte told us she is prepared to put him on trial for genocide, as early as June or July. Once Mladic is flushed out, she says her next target is Radovan Karadzic.

Joe Rubin is a frequent contributor to FRONTLINE/World, who has made several reporting trips to Bosnia and Serbia. He produced last summer's Rough Cut, "Dark Shadows," about the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Rubin and Glasse's report on the hunt for Mladic and Karadjic will air on our March 28 episode.

REACTIONS

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk UK
As an independent volunteer working as a Reiki therapist with victims of war in Bosnia, many of whom are survivors of the Srebrenica massacre, and having the honour of meeting Hasan Nuhanovic last year, I eagerly await his book. He is a very special man and his story needs to be told.

Liz Coltrain - Des Moines, IA
Finally, Karadzic has been arrested. That's good news. Now the rest of them need to be found and tried for war crimes. These people need to be held accountable for their part in the destruction of the Bosnian people. I only hope he gets what he deserves, but I don't think any punishment could ever equal the atrocities he perpetrated. One down a few more to go. They need to stand up and take their punishment.

liz coltrain - des moines, iowa
I have followed the genocide in many countries, but the lack of support and help for the Bosnian people was nothing short of criminal. Do we value power, money and oil over human life? Since when do we only intervene when there's something we want at stake? America is supposed to be the "most powerful" and "generous" nation in the world, yet we stand by and do nothing while people are being tortured and killed and we see it right in front of us. I have been indignant for some time now about the sorry state that the world has fallen into. Genocide has been happening around the world for ages, yet with all the means at our disposal to intervene, we do not. That is, unless there is something in it for us. It should not matter what color you are or what religion you believe in or whether you are rich, poor or green with pink dots, the right to exist on this earth, free from oppression and free from fear should be a basic human right. But it is not. But for a few souls who are not afraid to stand up for what is right, the world might not know of the things that really happen. Because of those few, some (but definetly not all) of my faith in human nature is restored. Thank you for your brave reporting in the face of great evil and for putting a face on the victims of that evil.

David Rubin - W. Newton, MA
Full disclosure requires me to say that I am Joe Rubin's father, and so may not be completely objective in my response to the preview of this piece that's posted on the Frontline/World Web site. But the simple truth is that I found it overwhelming. First of all, the story brings home the reality of genocide, something that most of us find ways of evading or putting out of our conscious minds. But here we have the first-hand witness account, the "negotiation" footage itself, and the torment of a surviving son who seeks only justice. Yet we are confronted with the stark injustice that more than 10 years have passed, and yet the primary perpetrators are still at large. Yet, as the footage of Carla Del Ponte shows, there is a most determined effort to arrest these men accused of the greatest of war crimes, genocide, and bring them to trial before an international court of justice. Only through such efforts will the world be forced to remember what took place at Srebrenica and who was responsible for it. And this piece, with its images of "selection," forces the viewer to remember other genocides and the links of hatred, shame and guilt that hold them all together. Yet the work of Carla Del Ponte gives us hope, as does the first-rate investigative journalism work of Jennifer Glasse and Joe Rubin. Thank you, Frontline/World!