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Mladic Bullied Allies To Help Evade Capture, Official Says

A supporter kisses a picture of Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic.
BELGRADE (Reuters) -- The support network of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic is getting smaller and weaker as Serbian investigators close in on a man who has alienated and bullied his protectors, a Serbian official has said.

Giving rare details of the long-running manhunt, Rasim Ljajic, Serbia's point man for cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal, said Mladic had even threatened the children of supporters to make sure they reveal no clues of his whereabouts.

"Sometime before 2002, when [Mladic] used army premises to hide, he lined up all the officers helping him to hide, pointed his finger at each and said that even their grandchildren will be hurt if they dare to give out information on where he is hiding," Ljajic told Reuters.

The Serbian government has posted a 1-million-euro reward for information leading to Mladic's arrest, and the United States is offering another $5 million.

The arrest is vital to Serbia's future as Belgrade cannot advance toward European Union membership until it turns over Mladic to The Hague.

Ljajic, who is also Serbia's minister for labor and social affairs, said Belgrade knows more about Mladic's whereabouts today than six months ago.

"Mladic trusts only a small number of people. He is aware that more people in his support network would only make the job for our services easier," Ljajic said.

The minister added that officials have reconstructed Mladic's moves up until the spring of 2006.

Working Day And Night

Mladic, indicted for the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica and the 43-monhts siege of Sarajevo, was seen in public in Serbia until 1999.

Ljajic said Serbia's secret service has worked day and night on locating Mladic, typically avoiding media attention.

"I cannot believe that these efforts will remain without results," Ljajic said. "The most recent action to locate Mladic was conducted in Belgrade three or four days ago."

In July, Serbia arrested Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic, but Ljajic said that probe did not yield information on Mladic.

"These two support networks do not overlap. They are not the same people," Ljajic said.

Serbia has a hotline for citizens to share clues about Mladic.

"Tips that we get through these lines are mostly useless," Ljajic said. "On several occasions we had people who wanted to joke or lead us in the opposite direction."

Serbia signed a preliminary agreement with the EU in April but Brussels said it would unfreeze trade benefits only when Mladic and fugitive Croatian Serb wartime leader Goran Hadzic were arrested.

"We don't have information on Hadzic's whereabouts, but we are checking some information that he has been hiding in three countries apart from Serbia," Ljajic said.

Some European officials remain critical of Serbia's hunt for the two war criminals.

One Serbian security source recently hinted that there could soon be progress in the Mladic case, but some diplomats are skeptical after years of false hopes. Ljajic would not say if Serbia was closer to making an arrest.

"It is very unpleasant in this job when the efforts are being minimized or negated," Ljajic said. "That is demotivating for people who are engaged in his search."