The Serbian government sought Tuesday to quash news reports suggesting that the leading Balkan war crimes suspect, Ratko Mladic, had been located and that his surrender was being negotiated.
Independent news and radio stations in Serbia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina issued conflicting reports Tuesday afternoon stating that Mladic, former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, had been arrested or was engaged in talks to convince him to surrender for trial for crimes committed during the war in Bosnia, from 1992 to 1995.
But a spokesman for the Serbian government, Srdjan Djuric, strongly denied the reports, stating that claims of Mladic's arrest appeared intended to undermine the government's intention "to fully cooperate with The Hague," where the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is located.
In New York, Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said officials at the U.N. headquarters "have checked with the tribunal in The Hague, and we've been told that there is absolutely no information that Mladic has been arrested or located."
The Serbian government wants to avoid having the general go before a Serbian court, which could prove politically embarrassing, because the Serbian electorate remains highly nationalistic, said Bratislav Grubacic, the editor of VIP, a news service.
"They would like to have a solution that would be face-saving for them, in which he could be transferred somehow to Bosnia," Grubacic said.
Numerous inaccurate reports of the former general's arrest have surfaced in the 11 years since he was first indicted by the tribunal on charges of leading the massacre of at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys in and around Srebrenica in July 1995. Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are the two leading fugitives in the Balkans who are still being sought for their role in the mid 1990s Bosnian war. An estimated 200,000 people died during the Bosnian war and half the country's prewar population of 4-million was displaced.
But the speculation Tuesday was the most intense in years, and came as Serbia was facing possible suspension of political and trade talks with the European Union.
European governments have warned that the talks, a potential step toward eventual membership, could be suspended if Serbia failed to arrest Mladic. The European Union's foreign ministers are due to discuss the issue on Monday.
Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.