Tight surveillance of suspected helpers and relatives led to the capture of Ratko Mladic in a messy farmhouse where the fugitive war crimes suspect was found alone surrounded by medication, Serbian officials said on Saturday.
“We established several directions expected to lead us to Mladic: his wartime comrades, a group of Bosnian Serbs residing in Serbia that were linked with him in the past and finally his family,” said Rasim Ljajic, minister in charge of the search for fugitive war criminals. “One of those leads finally led us to Mladic.”
Security officials monitoring communications by Mladic’s helpers discovered several weeks ago which family members were helping him hide 16 years after the end of the Bosnian war, an official close to his arrest said on Saturday.
The fugitive general, who has been indicted for genocide during the 1992 to 1995 Bosnian war, was captured on Thursday at a farmhouse belonging to his cousin.
Lljajic said several years ago he received a tip on Mladic’s whereabouts which led to the same house where he was arrested.
“A man called a while ago and asked to talk to me and said that in a village near Zrenjanin he saw a blue Volkswagen Golf with such-and-such registration plates and that he thought he saw Mladic inside,” the minister said. “I gave all the information to security agencies which then continued to pursue the case, but the trail back then went cold.”
The official who did not want to be named said Serbian agents knew recently that they were closing in on Mladic when they noticed that one of his suspected helpers made repeated calls and trips to a village in Serbia’s northeast.
“Then we knew something was going on and that we might get him soon,” the official said. “We increased monitoring of that suspect and he led us to the general.”
He compared the operation to the methods used by US intelligence in tracking down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“Electronic surveillance was the key. We have also reduced the number of operatives on the job to minimize the probability of leaks,” he said.
During his arrest in the village of Lazarevo, about 100km from Belgrade, Mladic was armed with two handguns he did not use.
“Mladic was living an ascetic life, he practically never left his hideaway, he seldom opened windows, the room was a mess with many medications and pills on a table,” Ljajic said. “He was administering his own therapy. There was an old cellphone which he didn’t use.”
“He tried to back off away from the window when he saw someone entering the front yard, hoping police would focus on a house near that farmhouse where he was,” Ljajic said. “Police entered that very farmhouse; he approached them and handed over personal identity card with his name on it which was expired. He did not try to conceal his identity.”
Mladic is now awaiting extradition following a Belgrade court ruling on Friday that he was fit enough to face genocide charges at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.
Lawyer Milos Saljic said he would appeal today against Mladic’s extradition, using regular mail. This would meet the deadline set by the Belgrade special war crimes court, but delay the handover because the court would have to await its receipt.
Mladic’s son said his father was too frail to be turned over to prosecutors in The Hague.
However, a Belgrade court official said Mladic was in a relatively good shape: “We have sent him a TV set and strawberry snack and established good communication with him.”