BELGRADE, Serbia – After 16 years on the run, a frail and haggard Ratko Mladic was hauled before a judge Thursday -- the first step in facing charges for international war crimes, including the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.
No longer the fearsome, bull-necked military commander, Mladic was arrested by intelligence agents in a raid before dawn at a relative's house in a village in northern Serbia. The act was trumpeted by the government as a victory for a country worthy of European Union membership and Western embrace.
Mladic, 69, was one of the world's most-wanted fugitives. He was the top commander of the Bosnian Serb army during Bosnia's 1992-95 war, which killed more than 100,000 people and drove another 1.8 million from their homes. Thousands of Muslims and Croats were killed, tortured or driven out in a campaign to purge the region of non-Serbs.
He was accused by the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for the massacre of Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces in eastern Bosnia and the relentless four-year siege of Sarajevo.
On Thursday evening, Mladic walked haltingly into a closed-door extradition hearing in Belgrade, where he asserted through his attorney that he will not answer to the authority of the U.N. tribunal.
The former military commander wore a navy blue jacket and a baseball hat -- his gray hair sticking out of the sides -- and carried what appeared to be a towel in his left hand. He could be heard on state TV saying "good day" to someone in the courtroom, and a guard told him, "Let's go, general."
Mladic's lawyer, Milos Saljic, said the judge cut short the questioning because his client's "poor physical state" left him unable to communicate.
"He is aware that he is under arrest, he knows where he is, and he said he does not recognize The Hague tribunal," Saljic said, adding that Mladic needs medical care and "should not be moved in such a state."
Belgrade B-92 radio said one of Mladic's arms was paralyzed -- probably the result of a stroke.
Deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric said that Mladic is taking a lot of medicine, but "responds very rationally to everything that is going on."
Extradition proceedings could take a week or more before Mladic's expected transfer to The Hague, where he faces life imprisonment. The U.N. court has no death penalty.
Judge Fouad Riad of the U.N. tribunal said there was evidence against Mladic of "unimaginable savagery."
"Thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson," Riad said during Mladic's 1995 indictment in absentia.
International law experts hope the arrest will send a message to figures like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi that no leader charged with a war crime can expect to escape justice forever.
"Impunity has really been withdrawn from war criminals," said Richard Goldstone, the prosecutor in the 1995 indictment. "It's a very different world, and the prospects of them standing trial one day have been heightened considerably."
Obama, meeting with other world leaders at the G8 summit in France, hailed the arrest.
"May the families of Mladic's victims find some solace in today's arrest, and may this deepen the ties among the people of the region," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it marked "an important step in our collective fight against impunity."
In Bosnia, the arrest was welcomed by the head of a group of victims' relatives.
"I'm sorry for all the victims who are dead and cannot see this day," added Munira Subasic.
The Serbian government, which has changed mightily while Mladic was at large, banned all public gatherings and tightened security in the country to prevent ultra-nationalists from making good on pledges to pour into the streets in protest.
The Serbian Radical Party called Mladic a "hero" and described his seizure as "one of the hardest moments in Serbian history." The extreme-right group 1389 said the arrest was "treason."
Hundreds of pro-Mladic demonstrators in the northern city of Novi Sad tried to break into the offices of the governing Democratic Party but were prevented by riot police. At least two people were reported injured.
President Boris Tadic appeared jubilant at a news conference announcing Mladic's capture.
"We have ended a difficult period of our history and removed the stain from the face of Serbia and the members of our nation wherever they live," he said.
A Serbian official close to Tadic told The Associated Press that the president had personally overseen the arrest operation, and compared it to President Barack Obama's involvement in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
But the raid in the village of Lazarevo, 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Belgrade, was no Navy SEAL operation and the Serbian intelligence agents didn't have to fire a shot. Mladic had two pistols with him in the single-story yellow brick house, but put up no resistance, officials said.
"They didn't even wake us up," said a resident who identified himself only as Zoran for fear of retaliation.
He and other residents of the village of 2,000 people insisted they had no idea Mladic was living in their midst -- not that they would have minded.
"I'm furious," Zoran said. "They arrested our hero."
Many residents came out to defend Mladic, waving Serb and Russian flags on Lazarevo's narrow tree-lined streets. They blocked the road with a trailer, demanded that no camera lenses be pointed at the house, and told journalists to leave. A sign reading "Mladic Hero" rose at the entrance of the village.
Police moved up to the edge of the village, fearing violence, but there was none.
The arrest releases Serbia from the widespread suspicion it was protecting Mladic. U.N. war crimes prosecutor Serge Brammertz was due next month to give the world body a report critical of Serbia's lack of cooperation with the hunt for Mladic and other fugitives.
The Netherlands had used such reports to justify blocking Serbia's efforts to join the EU, and the arrest could help Serbia shed its image as a pariah state that sheltered the men responsible for the worst atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Serbia still faces many obstacles to EU membership, and new laws would be required on everything from farming to financial markets. It might also have to recognize the independence of Kosovo, a former Serbian province, and capture another war crimes fugitive, Goran Hadzic.
Hadzic, a former leader of Serbs in Croatia, is the last of 161 people sought by the tribunal.
"If the question is whether Serbia is closer today to the European Union than it was yesterday, yes, the answer is absolutely yes," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said. But he said other conditions to membership remain.
Among the horrors Mladic is charged with, foremost is the July 1995 slaughter of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, which was supposed to be a safe zone guarded by Dutch peacekeepers.
Mladic seized the town and was seen handing candy to Muslim children in the town's square. He assured them everything would be fine and patted one boy on the head. Hours later, his men began days of killing, rape and torture.
The Dayton accords brought peace to Bosnia in 1995, and the following year Mladic was dismissed from his post. He continued to live in Bosnia, until his trail grew too hot and he moved with his family to Belgrade in the late 1990s, living free in a posh suburban villa.
Even as Mladic allies such as Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were brought to The Hague, the former military leader was idolized and sheltered by ultra-nationalists and ordinary Serbs despite a 10 million euro ($14 million) Serbian government bounty, plus $5 million more offered by the U.S. State Department.
Mladic was known to have made daring forays into Belgrade to watch soccer games, dine at plush restaurants and visit his daughter's grave. He refused to give interviews and smiling quizzically when he happened to be photographed.
When Serbia ousted strongman Milosevic in 2000, the new pro-democracy authorities signaled they might hand Mladic over to the tribunal, and he was rumored to have returned to Bosnia. But the flamboyant Mladic went mostly underground in 2002.
Although there were media reports he brazenly used the alias Milorad Komadic, an anagram of his true identity, Interior Minister Ivica Dacic denied it.
Authorities recorded the last trace of Mladic living in Belgrade in January 2006, said Rasim Ljajic, a member of a government team hunting the ex-general.
"And then," Ljajic said, "he vanished."