BELGRADE, Serbia - Sixteen years after the bull-necked military commander went on the run, a pale and shrunken Ratko Mladic was hauled into a courtroom Thursday to face charges of genocide in ordering torture, rape and the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.
A Serbian government that has changed mightily since Mladic's alleged atrocities trumpeted his early morning arrest as a victory for a country worthy of EU membership and Western embrace. It banned all public gatherings and raised security levels to prevent ultra-nationalists from making good on pledges to pour into the streets in protest.
Mladic was one of the world's most wanted men, and faces charges of genocide and war crimes at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, where judge Fouad Riad said there was evidence of "unimaginable savagery."
"Thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson," Riad said during Mladic's 1995 indictment in absentia.
Mladic, 69, appeared frail and walked very slowly Thursday evening as he went into a closed-door extradition hearing. He wore a navy-blue jacket and a baseball hat with gray hair sticking out the sides, and carried what appeared to be a towel in his left hand. He could be heard on state TV saying "good day" to someone in the court, and a guard told him, "Let's go, general."
Mladic's lawyer said the judge cut short the questioning because the suspect's "poor physical state" left him unable to communicate.
"He is aware that he is under arrest, he knows where he is, and he said he does not recognize The Hague tribunal," said attorney Milos Saljic, adding that Mladic needs medical care and "should not be moved in such a state." Belgrade B-92 radio said one of Mladic's arms was paralyzed - probably the result of a stroke.
Deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric said that Mladic is taking a lot of medicine, but "responds very rationally to everything that is going on."
Extradition proceedings could take a week or more before Mladic's expected transfer to The Hague, where he faces life imprisonment. The U.N. court has no death penalty.
The arrest releases Serbia from widespread suspicion that it was protecting Mladic. U.N. war-crimes prosecutor Serge Brammertz was due early next month to give the United Nations a report critical of Serbia's lack of cooperation with the hunt for Mladic and other fugitives.
The Netherlands had used such reports to justify blocking Serbia's efforts to join the EU, and the arrest could help Serbia shed its image as a pariah state that sheltered the men responsible for the worst atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Serbia still faces many obstacles to EU membership, and new laws would be required on everything from farming to financial markets. It might also have to recognize the independence of Kosovo, a former Serbian province, and capture another war crimes fugitive, Goran Hadzic.