Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Friday, 1 June 2007 17:17 UK

Net tightens on fugitive Mladic

By Nick Hawton
BBC News, Belgrade

Ratko Mladic - file pic
Tolimir is said to have helped shelter Gen Ratko Mladic (pictured)
The arrest of The Hague's third most wanted war crimes suspect, Zdravko Tolimir, was headline news in Serbia.

It led the main TV bulletins and was the big story on the front page of most newspapers.

"Tolimir Arrested" said the Press newspaper, simply. "The news that opens the door to Europe," was the rather more optimistic headline in Danas.

All media outlets pointed out that, significantly, this was a joint operation involving Bosnian Serb and Serb police. Everyone agreed this was a big fish to catch.

But the most intriguing references to Zdravko Tolimir's arrest were whether it could lead to the arrest of his former boss, the Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, who is at the top of The Hague's most wanted list.

Gen Tolimir was Ratko Mladic's right-hand man in charge of intelligence and security during the Bosnian war and was a key commander at the time of the Srebrenica massacre in which more than 7,000 Muslims were killed by Serb forces in July 1995.

Significantly, Gen Tolimir is also regarded as being one of the central figures in protecting Mr Mladic during the past few years. Some believe he helped arrange the support network that has protected and aided the fugitive general.

Signs of breakthrough

Security analysts in Serbia have said that within seven days of the arrest of "the brain" of Gen Mladic's protection network, Gen Mladic himself would be arrested. So could the net finally be about to close on the notorious general?

Ratko Mladic has managed to evade those hunting him for more than a decade. Prosecutors at The Hague have consistently alleged he is hiding in Serbia but Belgrade has always said it did not know where he is.

But there are now increasing signs that a breakthrough in the hunt for the fugitive general could be on the cards.

Serb nationalists chant slogans while holding placards depicting Ratko Mladic during a rally in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, May 26, 2007.
Ratko Mladic is still a hero for Serb ultra-nationalists

The formation of a pro-democratic government in Serbia last month and, crucially, the appointment of new ministers and officials to key positions within the Serbian security apparatus, has been welcomed by those wanting to see progress made on the Hague issue.

The Serbian President, Boris Tadic, has formally constituted a new National Security Council which will include representatives from the defence, interior and justice ministries and also the intelligence services. One of the council's key tasks is to locate the remaining war crimes suspects, including Ratko Mladic.

President Tadic, who will co-ordinate the council's work, is regarded as one of the key Serbian leaders who genuinely believes in completing co-operation with The Hague so Serbia can make progress on the road to joining the European Union.

For the first time, Serbia has invited The Hague's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, to visit Belgrade next week. She is regarded as the bete noire of many Serbs, but the fact that Serbia's political leadership is now actually inviting her to come to Serbia is, at the very least, a highly symbolic event.

Kosovo tensions

Talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU were suspended a year ago because of Belgrade's lack of co-operation over war crimes suspects. But they are expected to resume later this month. This will be an early feather-in-the-cap for the pro-reform government.

But one extremely difficult issue lies on the horizon. The UN is currently debating a plan which could pave the way for the independence of the Serbian province of Kosovo, something demanded by its majority Albanian population but fiercely opposed by Serbs.

The issue of Kosovo is already raising tensions, and the issue always benefits the position of Serb nationalists. Those nationalists will be more keen than ever to keep one of their heroes, Ratko Mladic, away from those who want to arrest him.

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