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.
International law experts hope the arrest will send a message to figures like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi that no leader charged with a war crime can expect to escape justice forever.
"Impunity has really been withdrawn from war criminals," said Richard Goldstone, the prosecutor in the 1995 indictment. "It's a very different world, and the prospects of them standing trial one day have been heightened considerably."
The arrest also 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.
"If the question is whether Serbia is closer today to the European Union than it was yesterday, yes, the answer is absolutely yes," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said. But he said other conditions to membership remain: "That list is shorter of just one point."
Nonetheless, Serbian President Boris Tadic appeared jubilant at a triumphant press conference announcing the arrest.
"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," he said.
A Serbian official close to Tadic told The Associated Press that the president had personally overseen the arrest operation, and compared it to President Barack Obama's involvement in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Obama, meeting with other world leaders at the G8 summit in France, hailed the arrest, adding: "May the families of Mladic's victims find some solace in today's arrest, and may this deepen the ties among the people of the region."
Even as allies such as Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were brought to The Hague, Mladic was idolized and sheltered by ultra-nationalists and ordinary Serbs despite a 10 million euro ($14 million) Serbian government bounty, plus $5 million more 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.
In a particularly brazen touch, he had been using the alias Milorad Komadic, an anagram of his true identity, police said.
His life on the lam ended before sunrise Thursday, when agents of Serbia's domestic intelligence agency moved quietly on an unremarkable single-story yellow brick house with a small garden and a low fence, owned by a relative of Mladic's mother.
This was no Navy Seal operation: The agents didn't have to rappel from helicopters or fire a shot. Mladic had two pistols but put up no resistance, officials said.
"They didn't even wake us up," said a resident who identified himself only as Zoran for fear of retaliation.
He and other residents of Lazarevo, 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Belgrade, insisted they had no idea Mladic was living in their midst. Not that they would have minded.
"I'm furious," Zoran said. "They arrested our hero."
Many of the town's 2,000 residents came out to defend Mladic, waving Serb and Russian flags on Lazarevo's narrow tree-lined streets. They blocked the road with a trailer, and told journalists to get lost. No camera lenses were to be pointed at the house, they demanded. A sign reading "Mladic Hero" rose at the entrance of the village.
Police moved up to the village edge, fearing violence, but there was none.
Authorities banned all gatherings and raised security levels throughout the country in case of violent ultra-nationalist reaction to the arrest. The Serbian Radical Party called Mladic a "hero" and described his seizure as "one of the hardest moments in Serbian history." The extreme-right group 1389 said the arrest was "treason" and called on citizens to pour into the streets.
In Bosnia, the arrest was welcomed by the head of a group of victims' relatives. But, added Munira Subasic, "I'm sorry for all the victims who are dead and cannot see this day."
Mladic was the top commander of the Bosnian Serb army during Bosnia's 1992-95 war, which killed more than 100,000 people and drove another 1.8 million from their homes. Thousands of Muslims and Croats were killed, tortured or driven out in a campaign to purge the region of non-Serbs.
Among all the horrors Mladic is charged with, foremost is the July 1995 slaughter of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which was supposed to be a safe zone guarded by Dutch peacekeepers.
Mladic seized the town and was seen handing candy to Muslim children in the town's square. He assured them everything would be fine and patted one boy on the head. Hours later, his men began days of killing, rape and torture.
The Dayton accords brought peace to Bosnia in 1995, and the following year Mladic was dismissed from his post. He continued to live in Bosnia, until his trail grew too hot and he moved with his family to Belgrade in the late 1990s, living free in a posh suburban villa.
In Belgrade, he showed up at soccer games, dined in plush restaurants and frequented elite cafes, refusing to give interviews and smiling quizzically when he happened to be photographed.
When Serbia ousted strongman Milosevic in 2000, the new pro-democracy authorities signaled they might hand Mladic over to the tribunal, and he was rumored to have returned to Bosnia. But the flamboyant Mladic made a few daring forays back into Belgrade before going mostly underground in 2002.
Authorities recorded the last trace of Mladic living in Belgrade in January 2006, said Rasim Ljajic, a member of a government team hunting the ex-general.
"And then," Ljajic said, "he vanished."
Associated Press writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Andrej Cukic in Lazarevo, Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this story.