AP Exclusive: Behind the raid that nabbed Mladic

May 27, 2011 - 4:28 PM
Serbia Mladic

A Serbian police officer guards the house where Bosnian Serb wartime general Ratko Mladic was found in the village Lazarevo close to the northern Serbian town of Zrenjanin, 50 kilometers north of Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, May 27, 2011. Ratko Mladic was arrested on Thursday in the village in Serbia after 16 years on the run. (AP Photo/Andrej Cukic)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The old man, hobbled by pain, couldn't coax himself to sleep. He got out of bed just before dawn, pulled on a blue baseball cap and headed for a walk in the garden. Maybe some fresh air would clear his head.

At the same time, four jeeps carrying about 20 masked men in black fatigues rolled quietly into the remote northern Serbian village of Lazarevo, hoping to surprise a quarry that had eluded them for 16 years. They pulled up to four houses simultaneously — all owned by relatives of one of the world's most wanted men.

Four of the men jumped over a fence and burst into one of the houses as the frail man moved toward the door. They grabbed him and pushed him roughly to the floor.

"Identify yourself!" one shouted.

The old man managed a whisper: "I'm Ratko Mladic."

An excruciating manhunt had ended quietly as the sun rose over the Serbian fields.

The account, provided to The Associated Press by three Serbian police officials on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, was the most detailed to date of the operation that captured the man charged with orchestrating atrocities in the Bosnian war, including Europe's worst massacre since World War II.

Mladic, the officials said, moved to the largely Bosnian Serb village of Lazarevo about two years ago, figuring he would be safe with his relatives. Earlier in his life as a fugitive he was brazen enough to be seen at fancy restaurants and drinking clubs in Belgrade, Serbia's capital, but here he lived an anonymous, low-key lifestyle.

Age and declining health helped make him inconspicuous. The slow, unsteady 69-year-old who appeared in court Friday bore little resemblance to the robust, uniformed figure strutting in front of the cameras during the Bosnian war.

Police said they had no tip that Mladic was hiding out in Lazarevo, and no specific information about the house where he was found, other than it was owned by a relative. The officers, who have been searching for Mladic across Serbia for years, had never been to Lazarevo.

They came at 5 a.m. Thursday, when most of the village's 2,000 residents were still asleep. The streets were virtually empty when the jeeps rolled in.

Police said Mladic was awake in the yellow brick house he rarely left because his body ached from a variety of ailments. He was headed for a walk when the masked officers surprised him.

"Good work," Mladic told them, according to Serbian police chief Ivica Dacic. "You found the one you were looking for."

The three police officials said Mladic was carrying two loaded pistols. "Don't do something funny," an officer told him, and Mladic dutifully handed over the weapons.

The officers pushed Mladic into one of the 4x4s and raced away, the jeep's heavy tires sending fine dust into the air.

He was taken to Belgrade. He could be extradited as early as Monday to The Hague in the Netherlands, where the U.N. war crimes tribunal has been waiting for him since 1995.

Mladic was the top commander of the Bosnian Serb army during Bosnia's 1992-95 war, which left more than 100,000 people dead and drove another 1.8 million from their homes. He is charged with international war crimes in a campaign to purge the region of non-Serbs that included the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

Though Mladic had evaded capture since 1995, Dacic said the ex-general did not have a large support network.

"Mladic lived alone with his relatives, without any financial means," the chief told reporters Friday. "The stories that he had a major ring of security and many helpers turned out not to be true."

A $10 million (7 million euro) reward had been offered for Mladic's arrest, but Serbian officials said no one will pick it up because police were not acting on a tip when they arrested him.

Mladic was taken to court on Thursday and Friday, when a judge ruled he was fit enough to be extradited. His attorney is appealing, saying he's too ill to leave Serbia.

The Serbian health ministry said in a statement that a team of prison doctors described Mladic's health as stable following checkups. It also said Health Minister Zoran Stankovic, a former friend of Mladic's, visited him in his cell Friday.

Mladic is taking a lot of medicine, but "responds very rationally to everything that is going on," deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric said. A tribunal spokeswoman said from The Hague that it is capable of dealing with any health problems.

Mladic addressed people in court by name and talked a lot, a judicial official told the AP on condition of anonymity. The official said Mladic also refused to take off his blue ball cap.

"His body is weak, but his eyes are the blue-steel eyes of a young man," the official said.

Mladic asked for fresh strawberries to be brought to his cell, along with novels by Russian master Leo Tolstoy and a television set, the judicial official said.

The strawberries were provided; it wasn't immediately clear if he had also been given the books and the TV. And the official said Mladic was denied his request to visit the Belgrade grave of his daughter Ana, who killed herself in 1994 with her father's favorite pistol.

Mladic is seeking at least one more thing, Vekaric said: his military pension, which has been frozen because of his indictment.

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Associated Press writer Jovana Gec contributed to this report.