Justice Nearing for a Serb Fugitive?

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Just as she prepares to retire from one of the biggest manhunts of the past decade, Carla Del Ponte believes success is imminent. The outgoing prosecutor for the U.N. court dealing with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia says she has good reason to believe that her most elusive prey, former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, may soon be in the hands of the court. Del Ponte announced last week, during a valedictory visit to the Serbian capital Belgrade, that she had received very positive signals from the new government with respect to handing over five war crimes suspects still at large. In contrast to the acrimony of many of her previous visits to Belgrade, she said this one went better than any since she took the job in 1999. Cooperation by the Serbian authorities is considered the key to apprehending Mladic; he and former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic have eluded arrest in the Balkans since their initial indictment 12 years ago.

The failure to arrest Mladic in particular has been laid at the door of Serb authorities, since he is believed to have found refuge in Serbia under the protection of that country's military intelligence service. Mladic is wanted for his role in the shelling of Sarajevo, and also faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity over the murder of some 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995. But for many Serbs, he is still considered a war hero. Initially, Mladic found protection under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, but even after he was forced from office in 2000, Mladic continued to receive a pension from the Serbian military. The general was last spotted in public in Belgrade in 2005, where he had spent several years moving from one apartment to another to escape detection.

As recently as one month ago, it seemed as if Mladic and his fellow fugitives might escape justice altogether. Serbia was on the verge of swearing in a government that included a party whose own leader is an indicted war criminal, and which openly opposes the U.N. court. And the court itself is due to wind up its activities next year. Instead, however, a new pro-Western coalition took power, and it has apparently agreed to cooperate fully with the U.N. court in order to resume Serbia's efforts to join the European Union. Two weeks ago, the new government handed over Zdravko Tolimir, a top intelligence aide to Mladic, also charged with genocide, and at least some of the remaining five senior figures are expected to be sent to The Hague this summer. "I'm much more optimistic we can achieve our goals," said Del Ponte, who told TIME that the arrest of Mladic and Karadzic is her most important priority before leaving office in September. E.U. authorities are equally optimistic. Last year the E.U. suspended talks on Serbia's possible membership over Belgrade's failure to cooperate with the court. Last weekend, E.U. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said, "Serbia has demonstrated clear commitment to full cooperation with the [U.N. court]." Talks on Serbia joining the Union should resume this month, he said.

Not everyone is convinced that the Serbian government will deliver on all its promises. In the past, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has repeatedly denigrated the court as biased against Serbs. Natasa Kandic, a prominent human rights campaigner and director of the Humanitarian Law Center, a group that lobbies for the prosecution of war criminals, told TIME: "For the past seven years, Kostunica has repeatedly shown nothing but disdain for the Tribunal, and now he has suddenly changed his tune and made some promises. Frankly, I am confused, and based on Kostunica's record, I'm not sure [del Ponte's] optimism is well-founded."

Still, the summer is likely to see the endgame in the pursuit of war criminals in the Balkans, including, almost certainly, more high-profile arrests. The European Union and Washington have other business in the region: they want to see Kosovo, still a Serbian province, granted its independence, and one way to overcome Serbian opposition to that plan is to promise the country closer ties with Western institutions such as the E.U. and NATO, all of which will be easier if Serbia clears the decks by handing over most of its remaining indicted war criminals — a deal that the government, at last, seems to be willing to make.

With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade