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Fugitive War Crimes Suspect Ratko Mladic Arrested After 16 Years

May 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: A long-awaited war crimes arrest in the former Yugoslavia.

We start with a report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: He was Europe’s most-wanted man, accused of the worst massacres on the continent since the Nazis. But General Ratko Mladic is in custody in the Serbian capital tonight, facing justice after more than 15 years on the run.

And with Serbia long accused of deliberately failing to find him, the country’s president leapt at the chance to prove his critics wrong.

BORIS TADIC, president of Serbia (through translator): On behalf of the Republic of Serbia, I announce that, today, we arrested Ratko Mladic. Extradition process is under way. Today, we closed one chapter — chapter of our recent history that will bring us one step closer to full reconciliation in the region.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: It was in this northern farmhouse, his cousin’s home, where the Bosnian Serb general was arrested.

The area is home to many Serb refugees, who may have been protecting him. Local media claimed he’d been under surveillance for months. Three years ago, Mladic’s political boss, Radovan Karadzic, was arrested on a bus in Belgrade. He’d grown a beard and was posing as a therapist, but he’s now on trial for war crimes at The Hague, as was Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president, until he died in his cell five years ago.

Mladic, the third of the Balkans’ most-wanted, cut a macho figure, a hero to the Serb nationalist cause, but widely held responsible for slaughtering Bosnian Muslim civilians. He led the siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 were killed.

But it was Srebrenica in 1995 where Mladic guaranteed his place in infamy.

“You have nothing to worry about,” the general told Muslim refugees seeking protection from the U.N. Then he ordered the women to be separated, while the men and boys were led away to their execution. Almost 8,000 of them were systematically shot.

And those who lost husbands, brothers and sons today hoped that their wait for justice was finally over.

KADA HOTIC, Srebrenica survivor (through translator): They took my son and husband, two brothers and many other relatives and many other friends and neighbors of mine. And all these years, Mladic was at large, enjoying life.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: This was Mladic giving orders in the Bosnian war. Then he gradually disappeared, only to resurface in this footage, apparently shot in 2009.

It showed him enjoying himself quite openly, despite being wanted for genocide. He reportedly wasn’t wearing a disguise when he was arrested this morning. And back in 2009, E.U. leaders were infuriated by these pictures of him frolicking in the snow — his arrest today welcomed by the E.U.’s foreign policy chief who, coincidence or otherwise, was visiting Belgrade.

Mladic is 68 now and has been living under the pseudonym Milorad Komadic. It’s not known whether the $19 million reward on offer led to his arrest.