Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the alleged architect of war crimes including Europe’s worst massacre since the Second World War, was in custody today after more than a decade on the run.
Karadzic, 63, accused of organising the deadly siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre of up to 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica, was captured on Friday morning while on a bus then held for three days, his lawyer claimed.
Karadzic had topped the United Nations war crimes tribunal’s most-wanted list for more than a decade.
The tribunal described him as the suspected mastermind of “scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history”. Prosecutors suspected he eluded the manhunt with the help of Bosnian Serb nationalists and a string of elaborate disguises.
“This is a very important day for the victims who have waited for this arrest for over a decade,” the tribunal’s head prosecutor Serge Brammertz said. “It clearly demonstrates that nobody is beyond the reach of the law and that sooner or later all fugitives will be brought to justice.”
Serbian president Boris Tadic’s office said Karadzic was arrested “in an action by the Serbian security services” and taken before the investigative judge of Serbia’s war crimes court, indicating imminent extradition to the UN war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.
A Serbian police source said Karadzic was arrested in a Belgrade suburb after a tip from a foreign intelligence service and weeks of surveillance of his safe house.
Sveta Vujacic, Karadzic’s lawyer, said the fugitive had been arrested on a bus at around 9.30am on Friday and held until he was brought to the court last night.
“He just said that these people showed him a police badge and than he was taken to some place and kept in the room. And that is absolutely against the law what they did,” Mr Vujacic told AP Television News.
“The judge also said that he will look into this matter, who and why kept him for three days.”
Investigative judge Milan Dilparic said early today that he had questioned Karadzic – the first step in an process that includes presenting him with the indictment and allowing three days for him to appeal against any decision to hand him to the Hague court.
Heavily-armed special forces of the Serbian Gendarmerie were deployed around the war-crimes court in Belgrade – apparently fearing a backlash from nationalists who consider Karadzic their war hero.
“He did not surrender, that is not his style,” his brother Luka Karadzic said outside the court.
Dozens of Karadzic supporters gathered near the building chanting “Karadzic Hero!” and “Tadic Traitor!” Several were arrested after attacking reporters in front of the court.
Other officers took up positions throughout central Belgrade and in front of the US embassy, which was targeted in nationalist rioting over Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February.
In Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, streets were jammed with honking cars and euphoric crowds as Bosnian Muslims celebrated.
The centre of the multi-ethnic city was besieged for years by Bosnian Serb nationalists. Operating from their stronghold in Pale above the city, they starved, sniped and bombarded the centre of Sarajevo, controlling nearly all roads into and out. Inhabitants were kept alive only by a thin lifeline of food aid and supplies provided by UN donors and peacekeepers.
The international tribunal indicted Karadzic on genocide charges in 1995. The psychiatrist and self-styled poet turned hardline Serbian nationalist still wielded power among Bosnian Serbs from the shadows and occasionally appeared in public before he went on the run.
Serbia has been under heavy pressure from the European Union to turn over suspects but Karadzic’s arrest came as a surprise to many. His whereabouts had been a mystery to UN prosecutors, unlike those of his wartime military commander, General Ratko Mladic, who had last been spotted living in Belgrade in 2005 and remains at large.
However, nationalists lost power in Serbia when a new pro-Western government took over last month and removed the nationalist official who held the office of secret police chief, the official formally in charge of arresting war crimes suspects.
“It is clear that those changes led to Karadzic’s arrest,” prominent Serbian human rights activist Natasa Kandic said.
Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who brokered the Dayton deal ending the war, said Karadzic was responsible for the deaths of 300,000 people and his arrest marked “a historic day”.
On July 11, tens of thousands of people commemorated the 13th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, which saw Serb troops led by Mladic overrun an enclave supposedly protected by outnumbered UN troops. Mladic’s troops rounded up the entire population and took the men away for execution.
“There is no better tribute to the victims of the war’s atrocities than bringing their perpetrators to justice,” the White House said.
Munira Subasic, a mother who lost two sons in the Srebrenica massacre, was overcome with emotion as she watched the news on television.
“After 13 years, we finally reached the moment of truth,” she said.
Karadzic’s wife, Ljiljana, said by phone from her home in her husband’s former stronghold, Pale, near Sarajevo that her daughter Sonja had called her before midnight.
“As the phone rang, I knew something was wrong. I’m shocked. Confused. At least now, we know he is alive,” Mrs Karadzic said. She would not comment further.