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Election in Serbia may cripple hunt for Gen. Ratko Mladic
KOSOVO SERBIA ELECT 5663988
Serbs walk past a pre-election posters reading, "Go forward Serbia!" showing Vojislav Seselj (right on poster) leader of the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party, and his deputy Tomislav Nikolic (left on poster) in the Serb village of Strpce in Southern Kosovo on Friday, May 9, 2008. Serbia's rival nationalists and pro-Europeans waged a last-ditch battle for votes ahead of weekend elections. - photo by Associated Press
    BELGRADE, Serbia — For 13 years, he has eluded capture for atrocities a U.N. judge described as ‘‘scenes from hell ... written on the darkest pages of human history.’’
    Gen. Ratko Mladic — indicted for genocide in the 1995 slaughter of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Bosnia — remains one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives. But Serbia’s lukewarm pledge to capture him will give way to open defiance if ultranationalists win Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
    Western officials have all but given up hope that the 65-year-old Bosnian Serb military leader — believed to be hiding somewhere in Serbia — will ever face justice.
    Their pessimism reflects a growing sense of resignation that no matter who is in charge in Belgrade, U.S. and European policy toward Serbia has failed, despite years of haranguing and a $5 million State Department bounty on Mladic’s head.
    ‘‘It’s very discouraging because we felt there was a real possibility that Mladic would be handed over,’’ said Alex Whiting, an ex-prosecutor with the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands.
    ‘‘The Serbian government has played a waiting game and has just worn down the international community,’’ said Whiting, now an assistant professor at Harvard Law School.
    ‘‘Actions speak louder than words, and despite repeated promises to cooperate, they have not delivered. It’s very clear that they could have, and they made a deliberate decision not to.’’
    Tomislav Nikolic, whose ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party has a slender lead going into the elections, has made it clear he’ll never hand over Mladic or former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
    The two were indicted together for genocide and crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding Europe’s worst massacre of civilians since World War II: the 1995 slaughter of Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
    A U.N. ‘‘safe haven’’ for Muslim refugees during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, Srebrenica was overrun by Serbian forces loyal to Slobodan Milosevic. The Serbs separated the men and boys, forced them to strip, killed them and bulldozed their bodies into mass graves, the U.N. indictment alleges.
    Former tribunal judge Fouad Riad of Egypt, reviewing the evidence, described ‘‘scenes from hell ... of unimaginable savagery’’ — including a man allegedly forced at gunpoint to eat the liver of his grandson.
    Western officials have accused Serbian security forces of sheltering Mladic. Karadzic’s whereabouts remain a mystery, and he reportedly has been changing disguises and moving around the Balkans.
    Nikolic insists neither man is hiding in Serbia. But he told The Associated Press this week that even if he knew where they were, ‘‘I would never deliver them.’’
    ‘‘I will not lie and say I’m searching for them. I will say I’m not looking for them,’’ he said.
    His refusal to turn on Mladic and Karadzic reflects their status as patriots and heroes to many Serbs.
    Until about five years ago, Mladic made forays into downtown Belgrade, dining at gourmet restaurants and attending soccer matches. After a few halfhearted attempts by Serbian authorities to close in on him, he moved underground.
    Tribunal chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz wants the country to hand over Mladic, Karadzic and two other indicted fugitives: Stojan Zupljanin, a wartime Bosnian Serb police officer, and Goran Hadzic, a political leader wanted for war crimes in Croatia.
    But the European Union — anxious to ease tensions triggered by Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia — has softened its demand that Belgrade hand over Mladic before it can join. It nearly dropped that requirement from a pre-membership pact signed last month.
    ‘‘The West has failed in the approach it’s taken,’’ said Charles Ingrao, a professor of history and a Balkans expert at Purdue University.
    ‘‘It’s become clear over the years that Serbia is never going to deliver Mladic to The Hague,’’ he said. ‘‘We should not expect them to deliver him any time soon — or any time at all.’’
    ‘‘We have to remember that Mladic is very well-connected and beloved among a great many Serbs,’’ Ingrao added. ‘‘Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anyone has the leverage to get the Serbian special forces to do anything.’’
    Boris Tadic, Serbia’s pro-Western president, has complained that Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has blocked efforts to arrest war crimes fugitives, according to diplomats.
    The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, told the AP that Tadic pledged to immediately arrest Mladic if his coalition manages to retain power.
    But with Nikolic expected to exert major influence in a new government with Kostunica, Serbia more likely will become ‘‘a safe house for The Hague suspects,’’ Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac said.
    Justice delayed is justice denied, and every day that Mladic eludes capture ‘‘sends a terrible message to victims’’ of Milosevic’s 1990s ethnic cleansing campaigns, said Whiting, the former tribunal prosecutor.
    It also risks emboldening a new generation of war criminals, he warned.
    ‘‘This happened in Europe’s backyard. But the international community is moving on to other things and not keeping up the pressure,’’ Whiting said. ‘‘What message does that send to leaders around the world who are wanted for war crimes in places like Sudan or Uganda?’’
    ———
    Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.