Two decades of deadly Balkan conflicts and political paralysis in the former Yugoslavia reached an end point early Thursday morning as Ratko Mladic, the architect of the worst mass murders and the Serbian militia leader responsible for sieges in the 1990s, was arrested after 16 years in hiding.
"A difficult period of our history is over and Serbia's reputation is no longer tarnished … it is good for Serbia that it has closed this chapter of our history," president Boris Tadic announced Thursday, declaring that the country's Security Information Agency had arrested the warlord.
Serbian media reported that Mr. Mladic was already in flight to the Hague, in the Netherlands, where he will face trial for genocide and war-crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia alongside his former political master Radovan Karadzic, who was arrested in 2008.
Mr. Mladic had been living in the open in the village of Lazarevo in the south of Serbia, without the long beard and Orthodox clerical robes as used by Mr. Karadzic, according to the Belgrade media outlet B92, which said he has "aged considerably," that one of his arms is paralyzed, and that he gave himself up without resistance.
It appeared that he was living with, or near, other members of the Mladic family.
Retired Canadian major-general Lewis MacKenzie called Mr. Mladic's arrest a positive development for Serbia, which had been accused of not doing enough to capture him.
"It's a little bit like bin Laden, I guess you could say," said Mr. MacKenzie, who commanded UN peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo in 1992. "My guesstimate is it wasn't [government]policy, but certainly he had his followers that would have gone out of their way to hide him."
Mr. Mladic led the militia of the breakaway Republica Srbska, which sought to impose a Serbian identity on the multi-ethnic state of Bosnia; he was the architect of ethnic-cleansing schemes that included the Siege of Sarajevo and, most infamously, the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre in which as many as 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were systematically executed.
Mr. MacKenzie, who met with Mr. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic several times during the early months of the siege of Sarajevo, remembered Mr. Mladic as a "bully."
"On a number of occasions, he threatened to send my soldiers home in body bags if NATO took any offensive action or air strikes or whatever," he said.
During their negotiations, Mr. Mladic had a habit of recording "every bloody word" of their conversations in tiny handwriting, Mr. MacKenzie said.
"As you're talking to him he's writing down everything - his response and your question, et cetera," he said. "It was this distrust of anybody else. I tell ya, if they could find those books and those diaries, they'd be worth their weight in gold."
The hunt for Mr. Mladic began shortly after he was indicted in 1995 on multiple charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It intensified after the Balkan wars ended in 2000 with the departure of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, whose campaign to Serbianize the former Yugoslavia was part of the political movement that enabled Mr. Mladic's crimes.
The democracy movement that drove Mr. Milosevic from office and delivered him to the Hague seemed determined to bring him to justice - especially as this became a precondition for the removal of trade and visa sanctions against Serbia and its ability to join the European Union.
But he proved particularly elusive, leading many observers in Serbia and in the EU to suspect that he was being protected by Serbian security forces still loyal to Mr. Milosevic.
Many observers in Belgrade feel that the security forces responsible for the assassination of Serbian prime minister and democracy activist Zoran Djindjic in 2003 were also behind the hiding of Mr. Mladic. Belgrade officials would frequently declare that they were on the verge of arresting him, but for "obstacles" in the form of rogue forces.
The arrest marks a political victory for Mr. Tadic, who has promised Serbs better lives and a more open economy based on closer inclusion in the European economy. Mr. Mladic's fugitive status was the one crucial barrier standing in the way of full normalization of relations with Europe; some countries, notably the Netherlands, have rejected efforts to move Serbia toward EU membership based on this.
European leaders cheered Mr. Tadic at the G8 summit in France. "Serbia is a country that has suffered a lot but the fact it has delivered presumed war criminals is very good news," French president Nicolas Sarkozy declared. "It's one more step toward Serbia's integration one day into the European Union."
With files from Jill Mahoney