BELGRADE, Serbia — Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader charged with orchestrating the massacre of 8,000 people in Srebrenica in 1995, was arrested before dawn at a relative's home in a Serbian village on Thursday after a 16-year search.
Mladic, 69, appeared Thursday evening at a closed session in a Belgrade court, looking frail and walking very slowly as he was escorted by four guards.
His arrest removed the most important barrier to the Serbian government's efforts to join the European Union and to rehabilitate the country's image as a pariah state that sheltered the men responsible for the worst atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Mladic had two pistols when he was arrested but offered no resistance, Serbian officials and media said. Serbia raised its national security level and banned all gatherings after nationalist groups pledged to pour into the streets in protest.
"We have ended a difficult period of our history and removed the stain from the face of Serbia and the members of our nation wherever they live," President Boris Tadic said in a news conference announcing the arrest.
President Barack Obama, traveling in France, said in a statement that Mladic would now "have to answer to his victims, and the world, in a court of law."
But how such a notorious figure managed to evade capture for more than a decade, is likely to raise uncomfortable questions about whether he was sheltered by Serbian nationalists or elements within the security forces. Mladic remains a hero to some Serbs, who see their country as an unfair target for blame for its role in an ethnic conflict that killed an estimated 100,000 people.
Mladic was idolized and sheltered despite a 10 million euro ($14 million) Serbian government bounty, plus $5 million offered by the U.S. State Department.
He was known to have made daring forays into Belgrade to watch soccer games and feast on fish at an elite restaurant.
Tadic said Serbia had begun the process of extraditing the former general to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Mladic faces life imprisonment if convicted of genocide and other charges. The U.N. court has no death penalty.
St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Clearwater all have sizable pockets of Bosnian-Serbian refugees. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2009, the Tampa Bay area included 2,800 people born in the country that is now called Bosnia-Herzegovina, including ethnic Serbs who are Christian and Bosnian Muslims.
Stephen Zaremba, priest at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg, said the Bosnian-Serbian war included atrocities on both sides, but the media focuses on those committed against Muslims.
If Mladic ordered a massacre at Srebrenica, "he should be punished, but I don't think he did,'' Zaremba said. Most of his parishioners remember Mladic as a commander who protected them during a bloody civil war.
"They feel sad that the person they consider that they owed their lives to has been betrayed by the Serbian government and surrendered,'' Zaremba said. "They hope that the scales of justices will weigh in for everyone and not just one particular people.''
Times staff writer Steve Nohlgren contributed to this report.