The fate of top war crime fugitive Ratko Mladic remained unclear as Serbian media said Wednesday he was closer to custody than ever since being indicted for genocide a decade ago. But the government denied his arrest.
Mladic and Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic are among the world's most wanted criminals
Conflicting reports dominated newspapers in the Serbian capital on Wednesday that the former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic had been located, arrested and was even already on his way to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
But the Serbian government and police denied he was arrested, as did the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte.
"Mladic arrested," read the only headline on the front page of nationalist daily Glas Javnosti with the general's picture across the page.
"Ratko Mladic and his bodyguard were arrested in a Belgrade apartment, where negotiations on his voluntary surrender had been previously held," the daily said, quoting a source close to Serbian authorities.
But the largest-circulation daily Vecernje Novosti only said that the noose had tightened on the fugitive, as "all political preparations for the arrest are completed and Mladic is given only a little bit more time to decide to surrender." Otherwise, he would be arrested by special police forces, the paper said.
The influential pro-government Politika daily cited anonymous sources as saying "the operation of capturing Mladic started around 3:30 a.m. (0230 GMT) on Tuesday in New Belgrade, near a luxurious hotel." But it did not report on the end of the operation.
Reports of Mladic's arrest are "manipulation"
Some Serbian and Bosnian Serb media reported that Mladic had been located at Cer mountain, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Belgrade. Negotiations were now underway on his surrender, they said.
Mladic allegedly ordered the murder of thousands of Muslims
All media, however, published the government spokesman's denial that the fugitive had been apprehended.
"The news that Mladic was arrested is not true," Srdjan Djuric said. He said the report was "manipulation that harms, as well as hinders the Serbian government's efforts to bring the cooperation with The Hague tribunal to a close."
Previously, the independent Serbian B92 radio quoted several unofficial sources that Mladic had been captured in Belgrade before being transferred to an air base at the northern Bosnian town of Tuzla. The station on Wednesday still stood by its report despite all the denials.
A former senior secret police official told AFP late on Tuesday that an operation to locate and catch Mladic was still underway, but "so far without any result."
Pressure to capture Mladic mounts from international community
The 62-year-old former Bosnian Serb military chief is wanted for some of the worst atrocities committed during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. Mladic was indicted in 1995 over the three-and-a-half year siege of Sarajevo and the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys. It is considered the single worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
Thousands were executed in Srebrenica
Besides Mladic, the only remaining war crimes suspects from the Yugoslav wars in the mid-1990s are his wartime political leader, Radovan Karadzic, and four other ethnic Serbs.
Reports of his impending capture follow mounting pressure from the international community for Serbia to bring him before the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
The Serbian government has been giving strong signals that the net is closing on Mladic after being clearly told by top international officials that talks on its closer ties with the European Union would be frozen if Belgrade failed to deliver him by the end of February.
Mladic had lived almost openly in Belgrade until the October 2000 ouster of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He then hid throughout the country under military protection until 2002, according to a recent admission of the authorities.
Del Ponte has said that he was still in hiding on Serbian soil with the help of the military. Belgrade authorities have persistently denied any knowledge of his whereabouts.