BELGRADE, Feb 23 (Reuters) Ignoring government denials that fugitive general Ratko Mladic has been cornered after four years on the run, the Serbian press offered up to half a dozen versions today of what was really going on.
Nearly all agreed the drama was in its final days or hours.
The daily Kurir said Mladic and four of his closest bodyguards were ''trapped'' in a Belgrade apartment by a special police team formed to arrest top war crimes suspects.
Mladic had no intention of surrendering to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague and authorities were unsure of making a move on him, fearing he would take his own life. The operation was ''on hold'' until today afternoon, Kurir said.
Opinion polls suggest most Serbs view delivering Mladic to justice as a necessary sacrifice, but not all think so.
The ultranationalist Radical Party, which opposes the handover of Mladic, was due to hold a protest rally outside parliament tomorrow to ''stop the Hague tyranny''.
Its acting leader, Tomislav Nikolic, has warned that people might ''take to the streets'' if the 63-year-old general, seen as a hero by many Serbs despite his indictment for genocide in Bosnia, were to be seized and handed over.
The Serbian government yesterday again denied any developments on the Mladic case, adding that ''such fabrications are not only totally frivolous but really damaging''.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn is due to present a report to EU foreign ministers next Monday or Tuesday on whether Serbia is cooperating with the tribunal. He has hinted that association talks could be frozen if Mladic is not handed over.
The top-selling tabloid Blic quoted military analyst Zoran Dragisic as saying the government was ''probably still trying to secure a deal with Mladic that will make his arrest look like a surrender and therefore ease the political pressure''.
The daily Glas Javnosti said Mladic ''was transferred to Belgrade two days ago and the government is still trying to persuade him to go to The Hague voluntarily''.
''The scenario of his departure is not agreed yet, but it will most probably take place in the Bosnian Serb Republic. We should wait a couple of more days,'' its source said.
But the liberal daily Danas quoted a source close to the government as saying an operation to arrest Mladic two days ago had failed. Its brief report carried no further details.
Mladic was indicted along with his political boss Radovan Karadzic in 1995 for genocide for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, which claimed 12,000 lives, and for orchestrating the 1995 massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslims at Srebrenica.
In Western eyes he has long personified the ruthless brand of Serbian nationalism blamed for the wars that erupted as Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s, with up to 200,000 dead. To westward-looking Serbs he is a political albatross.
REUTERS SHR PM1729