BELGRADE, Feb 22 (Reuters) Official denials by Serbia failed to quash rumours that top war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic was either under arrest today, or being talked into surrender for the sake of the country's future.
Belgrade, Washington and the United Nations war crimes court in The Hague all denied reports sweeping Serbia yesterday that the former Bosnian Serb Army commander was in custody.
Serb dailies Glas Javnosti and Blic and the Bosnian Serb newspaper Nezavisne Novine today said the 63-year-old fugitive was now at a secure location negotiating terms of his surrender with the government.
The talks were said to be taking place at a monastery, or a hunting lodge, or a village with an underground rocket base.
The Belgrade daily Kurir quoted a source close to the BIA security agency as saying the government denial was a cover-up.
''The government spokesman doesn't dare confirm it because there's a fear of unrest in Belgrade,'' the source said. ''But it is completely true that Mladic has been arrested.'' Earlier reports said Mladic was tracked down in Serbia then taken to Bosnia, to defuse nationalist anger at home but still salvage Belgrade's talks with the European Union on its membership prospects, up for review in seven days.
The EU decides next week on whether to continue talks with Belgrade or freeze them as punishment for not arresting Mladic.
His handover is increasingly seen by many Serbs as a necessary sacrifice, but others view him as a blameless soldier.
''I can't decide if an arrest is the right thing to do or not,'' bank clerk Sinisa Pavlovic told Reuters Television on his way to work. ''As a country we're in such a situation, there isn't much we can do about it. It's up to the authorities to decide what's best.'' Pensioner Milan Zirojevic said he did not believe Mladic would give himself up ''because he is above all a soldier''.
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.
EU WARNING A low-key surrender in another country would be a dream scenario for Belgrade, keen to show Mladic was not coerced but also to cast doubt on Western charges that he was hiding in Serbia all along, with government connivance and army help.
Yesterday, Serbia's state news agency Tanjug, independent Belgrade broadcaster B92 and the main Bosnian Serb agency SRNA all said Mladic had been arrested in Serbia, then transferred to a US base in Bosnia ready for a flight to The Hague.
Mladic lived openly in Serbia until the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. He is still a hero to hardliners who say charges against him are anti-Serb propaganda.
To the West he personifies the ruthless Serb 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 the main obstacle to reinstatement in the European mainstream.
Serb media have debated for days whether Mladic would be in The Hague in time to avert suspension of EU association talks, which would deal a severe blow to the coalition government.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn is due to present a report to EU foreign ministers next Monday or Tuesday assessing whether Serbia is cooperating with the tribunal or stalling. He has warned talks will be frozen if Mladic is not handed over.
''The government is aware of the consequences,'' said Vladeta Jankovic, an adviser to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
Mladic's handover was ''almost a condition of survival''.
REUTERS SB RK1545