BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro – Serbian authorities on Thursday arrested three people suspected of helping Ratko Mladic avoid capture, and the government issued a new pledge to "quadruple" its efforts to deliver the former general to a U.N. war crimes tribunal.
The Cabinet's promise to energize the hunt for the former Bosnian Serb military commander came a day after the European Union froze pre-membership talks with Belgrade in response to its failure to catch Mladic by an April 30 deadline.
The new pledge seemed unlikely to carry much weight with the international community, or with the U.N. war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, who on Wednesday called Serbia's handling of the case "unprofessional."
The three suspects apprehended Thursday were charged with helping Mladic evade justice, Belgrade district court spokeswoman Marina Klaric Zivkovic said. She did not disclose their identities or give other details.
Five others accused of aiding Mladic were arrested in recent months and remain in custody.
Mladic, a former general who led Serb forces in Bosnia's 1992-95 war, has been charged by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, with genocide for the massacre of up to 8,000 Muslims in the town of Srebrenica.
He is believed to be hiding in Serbia with the help of supporters in the police and military.
The suspension of talks with the EU dealt a severe blow to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's efforts to introduce pro-Western reforms and bring the republic of 8 million people closer to mainstream Europe, after years of wars and isolation under late ex-President Slobodan Milosevic.
On Thursday, Kostunica outlined to his Cabinet efforts to find Mladic and said the ex-general's movements had been reconstructed over the period between April 2002 through end of 2005, said a participant in the meeting.
The Cabinet session was told that a crackdown had chipped away at Mladic's support network, taking it down from 50 people to zero, forcing the fugitive to stay in hiding on his own, said Cabinet minister Predrag Bubalo.
Bubalo compared finding the "lone" Mladic to looking for a "needle in the haystack."
"All our services have been given orders to quadruple their efforts to find this needle in the haystack," Bubalo said.
After Thursday's Cabinet session, the government noted in a statement the failure to deliver Mladic "endangered the vital interest of the people and the nation" — a reference to the EU's decision to halt talks that could lead the country to membership in the 25-nation bloc and a full recovery from the isolation Serbia suffered in the 1990s.
Serbia's pro-Western President Boris Tadic said Thursday that the government's failure over Mladic would also weaken Serbia's standing in U.N.-brokered talks to decide the future of Kosovo — Serbia's southern province, which has been an international protectorate since a war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian separatists ended there in 1999.