By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BELGRADE/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Serbia says the successful detention of the last fugitive war crimes suspect from the Balkan wars involved an operation that was as difficult as finding terrorist Osama bin Laden. Wednesday’s announced arrest of Goran Hadzic in northern Serbia ended a seven-year manhunt.
The detention of Goran Hadzic in a mountainous forest area in northern Serbia about 65 kilometers north of Belgrade was a far cry from the red-carpet treatment he received from Serb leaders during the Balkan wars.
Once an unknown figure working as a warehouseman, Hadzic rose to prominence during the ethnic conflict for control over Croatia from 1991 through 1995.
The 52-year-old Hadzic, who was born in Croatia had close ties with the secret police of late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and notorious paramilitary groups who opposed Croatia’s independence.
He used those and political contacts to be elected president of the self-declared Serbian mini-state in Croatia in 1991 and led rebel Serbs during the 1990’s conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.
In 2004 he fled his home in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad after an international warrant was issued for his arrest.
The United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague indicted Hadzic in 2004 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
They include the murder and torture of hundreds of people and the forcible transfer of thousands of Croats and other non-Serbs from the territories he controlled.
He also faced genocide charges in Croatia.
While on the run, he dramatically changed his appearance. State television showed Hadzic walking slowly, slightly hunched, wearing a gray shirt, short hair and a mustache. His black beard had been shaved.
Serbian President Boris Tadic acknowledged that it had taken years before the Balkan wars’ last fugitive was eventually revealed and taken into custody.
But President Tadic suggested that Hadzic had as much experience in evading justice as the late leader of the al-Qaida terror network, Osama bin Laden.
“If I have to remind yourself, about other case, internationally very well known and recognized for example a case about Osama bin Laden,” said Tadic. “That combat issue was very long and very hard. Almost one decade. At the end of the day that was fruitful and very efficient. That was the same situation. We have been working very hard, we have been working systemically, and at the end of the day we are finished.”
And just as with bin Laden, Hadzic was also known for alleged brutality.
While in charge of a self-declared Serbian mini-state in Croatia, Hadzic allegedly oversaw the leveling of the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991. Vukovar is believed to be the first European city entirely destroyed since World War II.
In one of the worst massacres there, Serb forces seized at least 264 non-Serbs from Vukovar Hospital after a three-month siege of the city, took them to a nearby pig farm, tortured, shot and buried them in an unmarked mass grave.
A month before about 50 Croats who had been detained for forced labor were allegedly made to walk through a minefield to render it safe for the Serbs.
His arrest came less than two months after Serbia extradited Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic on war crimes charges including his alleged involvement in a massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.
President Tadic made clear Wednesday that he is pleased that years of investigations were successful.
“We couldn’t [get] Goran Hadzic and Ratko Mladic before,” he said. “I have been talking many times I have been explaining everything what we have been doing in the last few years, past three years. That was very difficult for us to investigate. Those people have huge experience. But I will confirm once again we have been done everything that is possible and I am very proud on the people that have been working on that issue.”
The European Union said Wednesday that Hadzic’s arrest has removed another obstacle for Serbia to join the EU. “Now all 46 fugitives have now been arrested and faced or are facing trial,” said Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for the EU’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. “This is another very important step in the direction that we have called for.”
And the EU has made clear that the arrest of the Balkan wars last fugitive suspect is also “equally crucial for international justice.” He was to be transferred to The Hague Friday, July 22.