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Top Balkan War Crimes Suspect Sparks New Guessing Game

Nearly 13 years after the Bosnian war ended, Ratko Mladic's run from justice is tarnishing Serbia's image, hindering closer ties with the European Union and giving rise to yet another round of speculation.

A pedestrian walking by a poster of war crimes fugitive Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic on a main square in the Serbian capital, Belgrade

Where is Ratko Mladic?

Into Serbia's summer doldrums came the news: Ratko Mladic, Bosnian Serb genocide suspect and one of the world's most wanted men, was about to be arrested.

Then again, he wasn't.

Mladic is in Serbia. Mladic is not in Serbia. Mladic in Russia. Mladic negotiates surrender. Mladic would rather kill himself than surrender.

Such contradictory headlines have been the norm since the former Bosnian Serb military chief's protector, Slobodan Milosevic, fell as Serbia's ruler in 2000.

Another false alarm

Earlier this week, a Bosnian newspaper quoted security sources as saying Mladic's arrest was "imminent." Serbian, Montenegrin, Bosnian and Croatian intelligence officials had met in Belgrade to prepare his capture, Dnevni Avaz reported.

Ratko Mladic speaks with Radovan Karadzic in a picture taken in 1993

Mladic (left) and Karadzic in 1993, during the Bosnian War

The next day, Serbia's top security officials -- the director of the national security and intelligence agency, a war crimes prosecutor's spokesman and the national police chief -- denied claims that Mladic was located and all but arrested.

For Mladic, 66, arrest would mean facing United Nations war crimes charges, including genocide, notably for the massacre of up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.

The mood of anticipation was fomented by the July arrest of Mladic's political supremo, Bosnian Serb war-time leader Radovan Karadzic -- seen as a sign of resolve by Serbia's new government to overcome the war crimes issue.

But it is unclear whether the arrest of Karadzic was the result of a serious operation or a fluke. He had changed his appearance but lived openly in Belgrade as a doctor-healer, wrote books, went to restaurants and took synthesizer classes.

Military had sheltered Mladic

Mladic, seen by much of the world as a mastermind of Serb ethnic cleansing, moved around freely in Belgrade after the Bosnian war ended in late 1995.

He went underground after Milosevic fell in October 2000, but remained under the military's wing for at least several more years.

In early 2006, after denying it for more than five years, Belgrade admitted that the military "had undeniably on occasion sheltered" Mladic until 2002 at "army facilities" and that retired army officers were still assisting him.

Today it is unclear whether Mladic is protected by fierce, heavily armed supporters ready to kill, as some reports claim, whether he is alone, perhaps shepherding sheep, as others say, or if he is living a life as bizarre as that of Karadzic.

Officials' involvement unclear

Memorial to those killed in the Srebrenica Massacre

Mladic is held responsible for the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica

Before Karadzic's arrest, even Serbia's war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic apparently was duped.

"Mladic is in Serbia, but Karadzic is somewhere in the region," he said six months before the latter was caught on a public bus in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.

Dozens of Serb officials, including those who should know all that the secret services know about the war crime fugitive, have made similar statements over the years.

So they either did not know or, as the Serbian euphemism goes, they "told the untruth."

Mladic's pension still paid

Mladic is accused of a string of war crimes during his time as Serb military commander in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, including the sniping and shelling of Sarajevo during the 43-month Serb siege of the city.

But many Serbs, particularly those from Bosnia, see him as the hero who protected them in the war.

What seems clear is that Serbia's army is still paying Mladic's pension into his bank account, although it's out of reach because the government finally blocked assets of war crime suspects on Jan. 1, 2006.

Until then, Mladic's family had been allowed to withdraw a pension. Since then, close to 2 million dinars ($38,000), or 80 average Serbian wages, has accumulated in the general's account, the Press daily reported Tuesday.

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