Might have been a staged
Ratko Mladic capture: Was it all an elaborate set-up?
As the 16 year man-hunt for Ratko Mladic ends, questions are being asked as to how the 'Butcher of Srebrenica' evaded capture for so long.
After years on the run with a $10 million tag on his forehead, the last thing anybody expected Ratko Mladic to do was to give himself away cheaply.
Not only were his bodyguards willing to fight to the death, he was even said to carry a grenade around with him at all times, ready to blow himself up rather than be taken alive.
Yet at dawn last Wednesday morning, as a group of black-clad Serbian special forces arrested Mladic in the village of Lazarevo, Europe’s most feared war criminal responded not with gunfire or bombs, but polite compliments.
“Good work,” he remarked quietly, meekly handing over a pair of pistols that could have been used for an Alamo-style last stand. “You found the one you were looking for.”
So ended a 16-year-long manhunt, bringing not just the so-called “Butcher of Srebrenica” to court for war crimes charges, but also ushering Serbia closer to European Union membership and away from its long-held pariah status.
Yet as one mystery comes to a close, another remains unsolved. Why did the man who professed to prefer the instant justice of a bullet to the humiliation of the Hague come so quietly? Why was he protected only by his elderly cousin, Branko, rather than a team of do-or-die bodyguards? And was it really the result of dogged detective work, as Serb officials claim, or did they know where he was all the time?
The remarkable answer, according to Western intelligence sources who have spoken to The Sunday Telegraph, is that far from being a bin Laden-style lightning raid, Mladic’s arrest was an entirely staged event - the result not of police work but of negotiations by diplomats, who spent a whole year hammering out a deal to get him to surrender.
The deal, which suggests Serb intelligence at least had lines of contact to Mladic’s protectors, was sealed by appealing to the Serb hardman’s one known soft spot - his family. Told that they would be looked after properly if he give himself up, the prospect of ensuring the safe future for his wife, Bosiljka, and son, Darko, proved key in changing his mind.
“The negotiations about his surrender lasted slightly more than a year, with mainly French, British and German officials involved,” said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be named. “The Serbs took responsibility to work things out with him, and guaranteed that his family would be taken care of, and that he would get a pension and eventually a decent burial.
“After all, it’s better for him to go as a martyr to the Hague than die in some shabby military barracks or some wolf-lair in Serbia. He acknowledged that eventually and was talked out of suicidal martyrdom. As a result, Serbia gets her chance for EU membership, and he was just picked up by prior agreement in Lazarevo. There was no hunt operation at all.”
The picture painted by the diplomat, who is well-briefed on intelligence matters, is rather different to the version given by Serbia’s government, which on Saturday vowed to continue hunting anybody who had helped give refuge to Mladic.
“By hiding Mladic they have caused serious damage to this country,” said Serbian war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic. “Hiding fugitives from the Hague tribunal is a serious crime.”
That was hardly the impression, though, given by the Serb police’s treament of Mladic’s cousin Branko.
Rather than being hauled in for questioning, he remained at his farmhouse in Lazarevo on Friday, where the nearest he got to an unwanted interrogation was dodging questions from reporters outside.
He had, by all accounts, been rather more accommodating to the special forces men, serving them ham, cheese and home-made plum brandy as they arrested his guest, according to Serbia's Blic newspaper on Saturday.
"Branko, give these people something to drink and eat," Mladic is reported to have ordered his cousin. "Have a drink, refresh yourself, then let's go."
The welcoming manner in which Mladic greeted his captors is hard to square with accounts of his early life on the run, when he actively taunted his pursuers, knowing he had the backing not just of the Serbian intelligence service but also political allies in Belgrade.
His flight from international law began in 1995, when he was indicted by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered.
But as time went on, he became not only Europe’s most-wanted war crimes suspect, but also its most-seen.
In Belgrade, the Serb capital, he almost revelled in his status of fugitive-about-town, reportedly dining at posh restaurants and cafes, enjoying a VIP box at football matches, and even turning up for his son’s wedding.
These were no Elvis-style “rumoured” sightings either - a video of him released in 2009 showed him jigging with friends at a folk dance, hanging out with fellow officers in a barracks, and enjoying a ski holiday at an unidentified resort.
However, after President Milosevic was toppled from power in 2001 and sent to the Hague himself by a new, more pro-Western government, Mladic largely vanished from public view, spending much of his time as a guest of the army in barracks and bomb-proof bunkers.
With up to 50 bodyguards at his disposal, even the likes of the SAS would not contemplate a snatch mission lightly, given the risk of it turning into an intense firefight.
But as the West began dangling the prospect of EU membership as an incentive for Serbia to hand over its remaining war criminals, his circle of supporters shrank to a handful of backers within Serb intelligence and a more clandestine, informal network of minders and couriers.
According to details that emerged at a 2006 trial of some of the men accused of hiding him, the anti-surveillance techniques they used were similar to those deployed by bin Laden’s protectors.
Those in the inner circle would only meet in four nominated public places in Belgrade, discarding their mobile phones three miles away to prevent them being tracked. Even then, communication was mostly by hand-written messages, which were burned afterwards.
Pressure on the group intensified further from 2008, as Serbia elected the pro-European coalition of President Boris Tadic, who made it clear he wanted the country’s remaining war criminals handed over.
By then, life on the run was no longer very glamourous either: Mladic’s last known hideout, according to the 2006 trial, was a flat in a drab, graffiti-ridden housing estate in New Belgrade, also used as the backdrop to an obscure Dutch horror film.
Little is known about where he hid after that, although one thing seems likely: his cousin’s house, where he was found last week, seems to have been a place where he was sent to be picked up rather than to hide out.
The village, nestling among fields of plum trees, pepper plants and strawberry patches, is staunchly pro-Mladic: posters advertise forthcoming gigs by Fish Soup, a Serb nationalist folk band, and last week locals vowed to rename it “Mladicevo” in his memory.
But every one of the 3,000 residents knows each other well, and the presence of a stranger like Mladic would very quickly have sparked loose - if well-intentioned - talk.
“Branko Mladic is one of my best friends, and I see him every day,” said Dragan Arsic, 51, nursing a beer in the village bar, having spent a night in custody after police broke up a street demonstration protesting Mladic’s arrest. “There is no way he could hide anybody here without me finding out.”
“We all know each other,” added Zarco Lucic, 54, who has lived next to Branko Mladic’s farmhouse all his life. “If somebody comes here, we find out within a few days.”
Hence the widespread suspicion in the village that Mladic was dropped off there at most a day or two before his arrest, ready to be picked up by prior arrangement. Locals also pointed out that Branko Mladic’s house had been searched before by police hunting for his cousin, and was therefore hardly a sensible hiding place.
Deal or no deal, though, the terms of Mladic’s arrest may be his last chance to strike bargains for a while.
When he reaches the Hague later this week, the man who infamously urged his soldiers to “burn the brains” of Sarajevo residents will face what most believe to be a near-open-and-shut case of genocide: few imagine he will ever see his homeland again.
It is also unclear whether his deal to give himself up will include the granting of his last request - revealed by Serb prosecutors on Friday night - to pay a final visit to the grave of his daughter Ana.
It is said that she killed herself in 1994 after learning that her father might be indicted as a war criminal, although as with so many Balkans stories, the tragedy did not end there. The grief Mladic suffered over her death is widely blamed for turning from just another Serb military hard man into an all-out monster, driving him, some say, to commit the Srebrenica massacre a year later.
On Saturday, the small, wrought-iron bench by his daughter’s resting place remained empty, while the headstone itself had only two vases of plastic flowers, unlike the fresh bouquets that adorn many nearby graves. However, his request to lay a fresh one - made along with a demand for strawberries, Leo Tolstoy novels and a television in his cell - seems unlikely to be granted.
“He is a high-risk prisoner, and to supervise a visit would be difficult,” said one.
The Western officials who brokered his surrender are also likely to express reservations: even in the murky world of Balkans dealmaking, it seems, a man accused of putting so many in the grave himself can expect only limited rights to private grief.