PROTESTERS throwing stones and bottles clashed with baton-wielding riot police yesterday in Belgrade after several thousand Serbian nationalist supporters of jailed war-crimes suspect Ratko Mladic rallied outside the parliament building to demand his release.
Rioters overturned garbage containers, broke traffic lights and set off firecrackers as they rampaged through downtown. Cordons of riot police tried to block their advances, and skirmishes took place in several locations in the centre of the capital.
The clashes began after a rally that drew at least 7,000 demonstrators, many singing nationalist songs and carrying banners honouring Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander.
Some chanted right-wing slogans and a few gave Nazi salutes.
The demonstrators, who consider Mladic a hero, said Serbia should not hand him over to the UN war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.
“Cooperation with The Hague tribunal represents treason,” Serbian Radical Party official Lidija Vukicevic told the crowd. “This is a protest against the shameful arrest of the Serbian hero.”
Demonstrators demanded the removal of Serbia’s pro-Western President Boris Tadic, who ordered Mladic’s arrest. A sign on the stage read, “Tadic is not Serbia.”
More than 3,000 riot police were deployed around government buildings and Western embassies, fearing that the demonstration could turn violent. Riot police tried to block small groups of extremists from reaching the rally.
Supporters of the extreme nationalist Radical Party were bused in to attend the rally. Right-wing extremists and hooligan groups also urged followers to appear in large numbers.
Nationalists are furious that the pro-Western government apprehended Mladic on Thursday after nearly 16 years on the run.
The 69-year-old former general was caught at a relative’s home in a northern Serbian village.
The UN tribunal charged Mladic with genocide in 1995, accusing him of orchestrating the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica and other war crimes of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war. Mladic’s arrest is considered critical to Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union, and to reconciliation in the region after a series of ethnic wars of the 1990s.
Mladic’s son, Darko Mladic, said that despite the indictment, his father insists he was not responsible for the mass executions committed by his troops after they overran the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995.
“Whatever was done behind his back, he has nothing to do with that,” Darko Mladic said.
The massacre in Srebrenica is considered to be Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. Bosnian Serb troops under Mladic’s command rounded up boys and men and executed them over several days, burying the remains in mass graves in the area. Prosecutors say they have compelling evidence that Mladic personally ordered and oversaw the executions in and around Srebrenica.
But Serb nationalists in Serbia and parts of Bosnia still consider Mladic a hero — the general who against all odds tried to defend Serbs in the Bosnian conflict. Among his men, Mladic commanded fierce devotion — many Bosnian Serb soldiers pledged to follow him to the death.
Some 3,000 supporters arrived Sunday by bus from other parts of Bosnia to a rally at Kalinovik, the area where Mladic grew up. Many wore black T-shirts with Mladic’s picture and the words “Serbia in my heart.”
The crowd called Tadic a “betrayer” for ordering the arrest of “the Serb hero” and urged him to “kill himself.” Many said they would fight under Mladic again.
Many of the Kalinovik protesters headed afterward to the shack Mladic was born in at the end of a steep, muddy road in the village of Bozanici, turning the shabby house into a pilgrimage site.
Mladic’s family and lawyers have been fighting his extradition, arguing that he is too ill to face charges. The family plans to appeal the extradition today and to demand an independent medical checkup — moves described by authorities as a delaying tactics.
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