Hiding behind a long white beard and glasses, Europe’s most wanted man Radovan Karadzic was living a new life practising alternative medicine when he was finally arrested.
The man hunted for more than 10 years on two UN indictments of genocide had apparently been freely wandering the streets of Belgrade in his new identity, helped by false papers.
But today he was behind bars in the city, waiting for the almost-inevitable transfer to the UN war crimes court in The Hague.
A judge finished interrogating Karadzic today and issued the order for his extradition. Karadzic, 63, a trained psychiatrist, has three days to appeal against the ruling. His lawyer said he intends to do so.
Accused with masterminding the deadly siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre of up to 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica, Karadzic had topped the tribunal’s most-wanted list for more than a decade.
His whereabouts had been a mystery, with his hideouts reportedly including monasteries and mountain caves in remote eastern Bosnia.
Serbian security services found Karadzic while looking for another top war crimes suspect, general Ratko Mladic.
A government spokesman said Karadzic, once known for his distinctively coifed hairdo, was unrecognisable.
“His false identity was very convincing. Even his landlords were unaware of his identity,” he said, adding that he used a false name, Dragan Dabic.
He was also a regular contributor to Belgrade’s “Healthy Life” magazine whose editor Goran Kojic, said he was shocked when he saw the photo of Karadzic on TV.
“It never even occurred to me that this man with a long white beard and hair was Karadzic,” Kojic said.
Meanwhile His family in Bosnia, banned from leaving the country over suspicions that they helped him elude capture, asked to have the restrictions lifted.
His daughter Sonja said they wanted to spend at least a few hours with Karadzic before his transfer to UN custody.
“We even suggested travelling under police escort to see him for at least for a few hours,” she said.
“For years we have not seen our father, husband and grandfather; my mother’s health is not very good, and we do not have the financial means necessary to travel to Netherlands.”
The complexity of a case that encompasses most of the worst atrocities of the 1992-95 Bosnian war, likely legal wrangling and a packed dock at the court in The Hague all stand in the way of a speedy trial.
“Karadzic is the second most important defendant that we have had. It will not be a quick trial, but I believe it can be held as soon as possible - possibly within a few years,” tribunal judge Frederik Harhoff said.
Governments worldwide hailed the arrest of the man described by the tribunal as the mastermind of “scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called it a “historic moment.”
“The victims need to know: Massive human rights violations do not go unpunished,” she said.
European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels said the arrest sets Serbia firmly on the path toward EU membership.
“We have waited for this for 13 years. Finally. Finally,” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Brussels. “This is a very good thing for the rapprochement of Serbia with the European Union.”
In Sarajevo, Bosnian Muslims rushed into the streets last night to celebrate the news of Karadzic’s arrest.
“This is a very important day for the victims who have waited for this arrest for over a decade,” said the tribunal’s head prosecutor, Serge Brammertz. “It clearly demonstrates that nobody is beyond the reach of the law and that sooner or later all fugitives will be brought to justice.”
During the siege of Sarajevo that began in 1992, Bosnian Serb troops starved, sniped and bombarded the city centre, operating from strongholds in Pale and Vraca high above the city and controlling nearly all roads in and out.
Inhabitants were kept alive by a thin lifeline of food aid and supplies provided by UN donors and peacekeepers. Walking down the street to shop for groceries or driving down a main road that became known as “Sniper Alley” was a risk to their lives.
The siege was not officially over until February 1996. An estimated 10,000 people died.
The international tribunal indicted Karadzic on genocide charges in 1995. He continued to wield behind-the-scenes power over Bosnian Serbs, occasionally appearing in public before going into hiding three years later.
The worst massacre was in Srebrenica in 1995, when Serb troops led by Mladic overran the UN-protected enclave sheltering Bosnian Muslims. Mladic’s troops rounded up the entire population and took the men away for execution.
By war’s end in late 1995, an estimated 250,000 people were dead and another 1.8 million driven from their homes.
Under the UN indictment, Karadzic faces 11 counts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities committed between 1992 to 1996.
He would be the 44th Serb suspect sent to the tribunal in The Hague.
The others include former President Slobodan Milosevic, who died there in 2006 while on trial.