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Serbia Arrests Last War Crimes Fugitive Still Sought By UN Tribunal

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WATCH: Serbian authorities arrested the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia's last major fugitive, Croatian Serb wartime leader Goran Hadzic. He was brought to a Belgrade court on July 20 for interrogation. Hadzic faces charges of crimes against humanity committed during the 1991-95 Croatian war. (Reuters video)

Goran Hadzic, the former leader of ethnic Serbs in Croatia during the Yugoslav wars and the last UN war crimes tribunal fugitive, has been arrested.

Serbian President Boris Tadic made the announcement at a special press conference in Belgrade, saying that Hadzic's morning arrest in the Fruska Gora region had "ended all the most difficult chapters in its cooperation with the Hague Tribunal."

Hadzic’s lawyer, Toma Fila, told reporters that his client will not appeal the process, paving the way for his extradition to the UN War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia within days.

The 52-year-old Hadzic has been sought since he was indicted in 2004 on 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from atrocities that occurred in Croatia from 1991-95. The indictment particularly mentions a 1991 massacre in Vukovar in which some 250 non-Serbs were shot and buried in unmarked graves. It was one of the earliest atrocities of the bloody conflicts in Yugoslavia.

According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Hadzic was also among those responsible for the leveling of Vukovar, which is said to be the first European city entirely destroyed since World War II.

Manda Patko, an activist with the Vukovar Mothers Association whose husband disappeared during the massacre, welcomed news of Hadzic's arrest.

"It was time to arrest him. He should be brought to justice. He is accountable for the crimes and offenses that were committed in Vukovar," said Patko. "Maybe he didn't personally commit these crimes, but he ordered them."

Goran Hadzic during his arrest on July 20 (photo: "Politika")
More than 10,000 people were killed in fighting in Croatia, which ended when Croatian forces regained control of Serb-held territories in 1995.

Drago Hedl, a journalist in the Croatian city of Osijek, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that Hadzic's capture could help bring some closure.

"Goran Hadzic was a significant figure during the war. The trial that will soon begin at The Hague could reveal where and in which areas the victims are buried so the families could bury them decently," he said.

"Hadzic also used his political position for personal business. It is known that a lot of oil is being smuggled from Djeletovci [an oil field in eastern Croatia] when Serbia was under sanctions. It is well known that Salvonia forests were exploited. This was big business of Goran Hadzic."

'Painful Chapter' Closed

Today’s arrest comes less than two months after the arrest in Serbia of former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic. The two arrests had long been sought by the international community and are seen as now paving the way for Serbia's further integration into European structures and the international community.

Belgrade hopes to apply for candidate status with the European Union later this year.

EU officials welcomed Hadzic's arrest, calling it "a further important step for Serbia in realizing its European perspective" in a statement issued today.

However, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele told RFE/RL’s correspondent in Brussels that Serbia must make progress on fronts such as media freedom, rule of law, and political transparency before it can become a candidate for entry.

"After sending Mladic to The Hague and apprehending Hadzic, yes, Serbia is closer to the European Union," he said. "But if you ask me, does it mean that it takes away anything from [Serbia's] to-do list before [the European Commission] could come out with a positive assessment? No."

Yugoslav army soldiers (rear) and Serbian volunteers escorting a Croat civilian after they entered the city of Vukovar in November 1991.
Other leaders who hailed Hadzic’s arrest included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said "this arrest will allow for the most painful chapter in recent European history to be closed."

The White House said it hoped Hadzic's arrest would "bring some much needed closure to the victims of the crimes committed in Croatia, and their families, and elsewhere in the region."

In a statement, U.S. Helsinki Commission co-chairman Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) said, “Serbia’s reluctance to change course certainly held their nation back… but the arrest of Hadzic confirms a solid commitment to change.”

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic also welcomed today's developments, saying, "The arrest was delayed, but we can say that justice is slow but achievable."

Josipovic added that it was "good that the Serbian government is finally fully cooperating with Hague. It is good for justice. It is good for our neighborly relations and, above all, it is good for Serbia itself."

On The Run

Hadzic was nearly arrested shortly after his 2004 indictment, but escaped capture after reportedly being tipped off by contacts within Serbia's security apparatus.

With his arrest, the war crimes tribunal has seen the capture of all 161 war-crimes suspects that it has indicted since it was established in 1993.

Tadic noted that Hadzic's capture marks the end of a long process, adding, "Serbia will continue fulfilling its international obligations." He called the arrest the fullfillment of "our legal obligation and moral duty."

Hadzic was arrested near the village of Krusedol, just a few kilometers from the Croatian town where he was born.

Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic said a key break in the hunt for Hadzic came last year, when authorities found a stolen painting by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani that the fugitive allegedly was trying to sell.

The prosecutor said that after monitoring the financial network of Hadzic's suspected aides for months, police found out he was to meet a money courier in a forest near the village today.

Vukcevic also said Hazdic was armed but did not resist when authorities swooped in to arrest him. Hazdic's lawyer denied that he had a weapon.

The lawyer also claimed that Hadzic had spent "much time" on the run outside of Serbia.

with RFE/RL's Balkan Service, RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak, and agency reports

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