Mladic arrest boosts Serbia's EU membership hopes
The fugitive Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, wanted for genocide and war crimes, was arrested today – removing the key obstacle blocking Serbia's membership of the European Union.
Mladic was charged by a UN tribunal 16 years ago with crimes committed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, including the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 and the 44-month siege of Sarajevo, where 10,000 people died.
Serbia's President Boris Tadic confirmed the arrest at a press conference in Belgrade. He said it brought the region a "step closer to reconciliation" and confirmed that the extradition process was already under way.
Claims that the arrest was timed to coincide with the visit to Serbia of the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton were dismissed by Tadic, who said the capture was "not calculated". Serbia's inability to find Mladic had been a key stumbling block in negotiations over the country's EU membership.
Reports earlier today suggested that the tribunal at The Hague was planning to criticise Serbia's "insufficient" efforts to track Mladic down. Mladic faces 15 charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Reactions to the arrest from European politicians and officials came thick and fast. On Twitter, Ashton, due to meet President Tadic later today, said she "strongly welcomes arrest of Ratko Mladic as an important step forward for Serbia and for international justice". She will also visit Kosovo as part of the trip.
The President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek congratulated the Serbian authorities, adding: "The arrest is good news for Serbia, for the stability of the region and gives new impetus to Serbia's EU accession process."
Buzek's counterpart at the European Commission, JosÚ Manuel Barroso, declared the arrest "great news". He said: "During my visit to Belgrade last week, I strongly reiterated the EU's firm support to Serbia's European perspective. The arrest of Ratko Mladic is therefore a very positive development for the European Union, for Serbia's neighbours, but most of all for the rule of law in Serbia itself.
"The families of his countless victims deserve justice. I look forward to Ratko Mladic's transfer to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia without delay." The commission will set out its opinion on Serbia accession in November.
And President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy described the arrest as a "milestone" and congratulated Tadic for his leadership. He said: "My thoughts are with the victims of war crimes and their families. I hope today's news will take us an important step closer to reconciliation and regional stability as well."
Mladic is the last of the three most wanted men from the Bosnian war to be arrested. The former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died before his trial at The Hague concluded, while Radovan Karadzic's trial is ongoing. A fourth fugitive, Goran Hadzic, remains at large.
Doris Pack, speaking for the centre-right EPP, the largest group of MEPs in the parliament, said: "The arrest of Ratko Mladic is a sign that Serbia has taken its commitment seriously to fully cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. Mladic has been standing for a long time between Serbia and its European aspirations."
The Socialists and Democrats called on the EU to respond positively. "As soon as possible, the EU should give Serbia the status of EU membership candidate for it is showing its readiness to meet its European obligations," said group vice-president Hannes Swoboda MEP.
And for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, Guy Verhofstadt MEP said: "We hope that this clears the way for more expedient and determined integration of Serbia into the European Union. It should definitely act as a catalyst for reconciliation and the promotion of greater regional co-operation."
Amnesty International's Senior Director of International Law, Widney Brown, said: "It took more than 15 years but at last the people who suffered have hope that he will be brought to justice."
The arrest of Mladic also underpins Serbia's sovereign rating, according to Standard & Poor's, which said in a statement that it expects the country to become an official EU candidate in 2012.
"The improved political situation in Serbia under the current government in our view also reflects the emergence of a political consensus supportive of European integration, which we expect will further anchor the direction of economic policy-making and underpin the sovereign ratings on Serbia," the statement said.
But it added that further administrative and legislative reforms – as well as the arrest of Hadzic – were still necessary to accelerate the negotiations.