With the capture late Monday night of one of the world's most wanted war-crimes fugitives, the new government of Serbia made a major move toward leading its country in from the cold.
For years, Serbia has been cut off from normal economic and political relations with the world, in large part because former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, 63, and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, both wanted on war-crimes charges, have remained at large for nearly 13 years.
They are the men responsible for putting the phrase "ethnic cleansing" into the language for their campaign of expelling or killing all non-Serbian families from a section of formerly multiethnic Bosnia, a process that left tens of thousands dead. As holdovers from the terrible Balkan wars of the 1990s, their impunity marked Serbia as a pariah state.
On Monday night, all that appeared to change. The pro-Western government of President Boris Tadic announced that Mr. Karadzic had been captured and arrested in Belgrade by the government's Serbian Security Forces. It said it will co-operate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a United Nations court based in The Hague, which has had an indictment against him since it was created in July of 1995.
He will face charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
On Tuesday, Serbia's war crimes prosecutor said a judge has ordered ex-Mr. Karadzic's transfer to the United Nation's war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic added that Mr. Karadzic has three days to appeal the ruling.
Mr. Vukcevic said Mr. Karadzic has refused to communicate with his captors.
The ICTY's chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, confirmed the arrest Monday night, and congratulated the Serbian government for having accomplished what 13 years of governments, ranging from radical to reformist, had been unable or unwilling to do.
Mr. Karadzic has been wanted for war crimes including genocide since 1995, when he was held responsible for the shooting of hundreds of Bosnian civilians from the hills above the Bosnian capital during the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo, and later for the mass slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica.
After NATO forces had ended the Bosnian war, he went into hiding. People often reported sightings of him in the hilly southeast of Bosnia, and around Belgrade, where he seemed to be protected by a circle of men loyal to former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
While Mr. Milosevic faced a lengthy war-crimes trial that ended in 2006 with his death in a jail cell in The Hague, his two Bosnian Serb confederates remained at large. In many respects they had been victorious: Their ethnic-cleansing efforts produced the Serbian-dominated Republic of Srpska, which remains intact today as one of the two provinces of the modern country of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. Karadzic had communicated with Serbian leaders, and indirectly with the ICTY, repeatedly from hiding and he appeared to have become a pawn in Serbia's negotiations with Western governments and the European Union.
His former military commander, Mr. Mladic, remains at large, though he is widely believed to be living in the Belgrade area. A senior Serbian security official said last night that Mr. Mladic's arrest will be "not long from now."
The arrest of Mr. Karadzic appears to have been a carefully timed element in negotiations between Mr. Tadic's government and various international bodies over opening up Serbia's relations with its neighbouring European states.
The arrest occurred only hours after the fractious Serbian parliament held its last session before being adjourned for two weeks. And Mr. Brammertz, the head of the ICTY, was due to visit Belgrade this week (he cancelled the visit after news of the arrest).
More significantly, the ICTY's UN mandate is about to end, and while it has prosecuted dozens of Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and ethnic Albanian leaders over the past 13 years, its failure to apprehend the most significant war criminals of the Balkan wars has been a scar on its legacy.
"I think that for the credibility of the ICTY, this is a very much needed achievement to have him captured," said David Owen, the British diplomat who led many of the talks that led to the ceasefire in 1995. "I hope we now will see General Mladic also arrested and brought to trial. … We know that the court is drawing to its close, and people were really afraid that he might evade justice forever."
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Putting an end to the Karadzic saga will be seen by many Serbians as a key accomplishment for Mr. Tadic. For years, Serbia's people have been unable to travel in Europe without hard-to-obtain visas, and they have lacked normal trade and banking relations with their neighbours, effectively isolating the increasingly poor country.
The European Union has promised to put Serbia on a path toward membership if it can hand over its most wanted war-crimes fugitives and allow the troubled province of Kosovo to become independent. The latter was effectively accomplished this year, albeit without official recognition from Belgrade, and the arrest seemed to move Serbia toward its final goals.
Mr. Tadic's awkwardly assembled coalition government, which includes some nationalist parties (including the former party of Mr. Milosevic) as well as the reformist parties of Serbia's democratic movement, is widely regarded as a pro-European and anti-nationalist alternative to the nationalist, pro-Russian parties that had been on the verge of regaining power after Serbia's national elections in March.
Human-rights leaders reached Monday night were jubilant.
"What's significant here is this is the top guy from the horrors of the Balkan wars of the 1990s," said Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch.
"The significance of bringing to justice the former president just can't be put into words. Far beyond the borders of the Western Balkans, it sends a message that no one remains above the law for these kinds of crimes."
With a report from Josh Wingrove in Toronto and a file from Associated Press