A senior U.S. diplomat said Friday the capture of key Balkans war crimes figure Ratko Mladic may be near. Undersecretary of State Nicolas Burns, just back from talks in the Balkans, told reporters it is only a matter of time before the former Bosnian-Serb military chief is captured.
Ratko Mladic, who faces charges in the killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in the Balkans conflict, has eluded pursuers for nearly a decade.
But Mr. Burns says he returned from talks in Belgrade on Thursday with a very strong impression that the Serbian leadership is now determined to find the former Bosnian-Serb military chief, and hand him over to The Hague tribunal.
Mr. Burns' comments in a talk with reporters coincided with press reports from Belgrade that Serbian authorities know where Mr. Mladic is hiding, and are considering how to arrest him without casualties.
Mr. Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official, said he was unaware of Mr. Mladic's current hiding place, but that U.S. officials believe that he had been sheltered by elements of the Serb military for a number of years.
The United States had been dissatisfied with the record of the Belgrade government on the issue of war crimes indictees, and had frozen the delivery of reconstruction aid because of it.
But Undersecretary Burns said the attitude of Serb authorities has changed markedly with the delivery to the Hague tribunal of 12 war crimes suspects in the last three months, prompting a U.S. decision announced Thursday to resume the aid flow.
He said the change, propelled by the recent release of graphic video of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre at which Mr. Mladic was present, leads him to believe that his days as a fugitive are numbered.
"I can't go into all the efforts that are being made,” said Mr. Burns. “But, I can say what I've said, and that is that we believe there is a seriousness of purpose on the part of the government in Belgrade. We believe they are intent on getting this done, and their track record over the last three months gives us confidence that they have made a strategic decision that the indicted war criminals on their soil should be turned over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague."
Mr. Burns said, despite the decision to recertify Belgrade for U.S. aid, which freed about $10 million in suspended funds, the Bush administration has told Serb officials they cannot expect further benefits, until the arrest of Ratko Mladic.
He said that includes granting Serbia's long-standing request to join NATO's Partnership for Peace.
The State Department official also stressed the urgency of apprehending the former Bosnian-Serb political leader, Radovan Karadzic, who is also under indictment for war crimes and long believed to be in hiding in the semi-independent Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. Burns said their apprehension would be a powerful sign of reconciliation to the region's Muslim population, and give a boost to efforts to resolve remaining conflicts, including the future status of Kosovo.
The Undersecretary of State, who also held talks on his Balkans trip in the Kosovo regional capital, Pristina, and in Sarajevo, reiterated a forecast that U.N.-sponsored talks on Kosovo's final status could begin by this autumn.
He insisted the United States has no pre-conceived notion of what the political future of Kosovo should be.
"We have never said, we, the United States, that we favor any specific outcome to final status talks on Kosovo, should they take place. Because we don't believe that a decision of that magnitude, what is the future of Kosovo, will it be independent, will it be autonomous, will the status quo be maintained, we don't believe that can be imposed on them by outsiders like us," Mr. Burns added.
A special U.N. envoy, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, is to arrive in Pristina Monday to begin an examination of whether Kosovo has met U.N. standards for governance, protection of minorities and other factors, that would allow final status talks to go forward.
Undersecretary Burns said, in talks with ethnic Albanian leaders in Pristina, he stressed the need to be tolerant of, and protect the rights of minority Serbs, who he said have been in Kosovo for centuries and have a right to live there.
He said the United States is mounting a diplomatic push on Kosovo this year, because the current situation there is unsustainable. Kosovo technically remains a province of Serbia but is administered by the United Nations with the help of NATO peacekeepers.