- - Thursday, May 26, 2011

BERLIN — European leaders on Thursday hailed the arrest of one of the world’s most wanted war criminals, Serbian commander Ratko Mladic, and with that, the dissolving of the main obstacle to bringing Serbia into the European Union.

“Serbian leadership has repeatedly promised to bring General Mladic to justice,” said EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule. “They have delivered and thus proved their credibility and the credibility of Serbia.

“Justice is being served, and a great obstacle on the Serbian road to the EU has been removed.”

Mladic was captured Thursday in Lazarevo, Serbia, about 60 miles northeast of the capital Belgrade, by Serbian security officials after 16 years in hiding.

He is accused of murdering more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica during the 1992-1995 Bosnia war in what is considered the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. He was first indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for genocide in 1995.

In Serbia, officials expressed relief that the “Mladic situation” was finally resolved, having been under intense pressure from the international community to arrest the fugitive.

“By arresting Ratko Mladic, Serbia has demonstrated clear moral credibility and removed the biggest obstacle in the process of its European integration,” Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said.

Serbian government spokesman Slobodan Homen said that a special division of the Belgrade Supreme Court will decide whether all conditions for Mladic’s extradition have been met.

Mladic will have the right to appeal, and after the appeal process, the extradition proposal will be forwarded to the Ministry of Justice to decide. Mr. Homen said the entire procedure will take about seven days.

While the international community expressed elation and relief, one diplomatic official in Bosnia said that many in the region believe the Serbs sheltered Mladic.

“It is clear they knew where he was all along - to many in Serbia, he’s seen as a war hero,” the official said, speaking under conditions of anonymity. “But they were under so much pressure recently, and some realized they were putting their future on hold because of Mladic, so they sold him out.”

The official was referring to increased pressure from Serge Brammertz, the chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor who accused Serbian authorities of inaction on Mladic and other war crimes suspects.

Mr. Brammertz’s reports are crucial in gaining Serbia candidacy status for EU membership.

In addition, officials such as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso have visited the region in recent weeks, trying to entice the Serbs to move on an arrest.

“When Barroso was there last week, he made it clear that the issue of Kosovo wouldn’t impede accession,” said Natasha Wunsch, a research fellow and expert on the western Balkans at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “One could hardly overestimate the importance [of this arrest].”

A disputed region in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, Kosovo has unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia, a move the Belgrade government has opposed.

In Bosnia, people expressed relief and hope for reconciliation.

“It is a great step forward,” said Sabine Woelkner, an expert on the region at the Bosnian office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a research institute. “The people of Bosnia-Herzegovina were waiting for this for a very long time. I hope it will give some momentum toward reconciling the three peoples of this country.”

Ms. Woelkner said the arrest will shed more light on what really happened during the war, especially regarding the siege of Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

“Still, the arrest doesn’t mean all problems will be solved here,” she said. “There is a lot to do in order to rebuild trust between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians.”

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who arrived in Belgrade on Thursday, said that while there should be elation over the arrest, it is important to remember the victims.

“It’s, of course, a very important day for international justice and for the rule of law,” Ms. Ashton said. “So today, more than ever, I think about the families and friends of the victims of the conflict and I feel it is really important that we remember them and think of them especially.”

In Bosnia, the head of a group of victims’ family members formed to keep the pressure on war crimes investigators to find the bodies and to arrest the perpetrators, welcomed the Mladic arrest.

“I’m sorry for all the victims who are dead and cannot see this day,” Munira Subasic told the Associated Press.

Jason Walsh in Ireland contributed to this report.

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