Thousands of supporters of war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic rallied Sunday to protest the arrest of the man whom they revere as a national hero but whom much of the West considers a mass murderer.
Ultranationalists, government foes and rowdy soccer fans gathered in front of the parliament building in downtown Belgrade to wave Serbian flags and denounce Mladic’s capture and expected extradition this week to The Hague to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
As darkness fell, a few clashes broke out as demonstrators threw rocks at riot police, who were deployed in large numbers throughout the city center and around Western embassies. Police said about 100 people were arrested; Serbian state television reported that 18 people were injured.
If the two-hour rally was a mostly peaceful affair, it was also far smaller than organizers had hoped. The turnout was only a fraction of the size of the angry crowds that filled the streets when Mladic’s onetime boss, former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, was arrested and extradited three years ago.
The Mladic supporters who showed up Sunday evening included members of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party bused in from other parts of the country.
The protesters condemned President Boris Tadic as a toady of the West and denied allegations that Mladic, as the Bosnian Serb military commander, ordered the killing of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in 1995. The atrocity was the worst in Europe since World War II and has come to symbolize the brutality of the ethnic cleansing campaigns seen in the 1992-95 Balkan war.
“Ratko Mladic is a hero for us. He fought for the Serbian people,” declared soldier Zoran Petrovic, 35.
Others say Mladic, now 69, may not have been blameless but that he and other Serbian fighters have been unfairly singled out.
“In war practically everyone is a criminal. Generals on both sides do terrible and great things,” said Marko Radulovic, 24. “If one side is to be accused of anything, the other side should be accused of the same thing.”
Almost as he spoke, part of the crowd, which was composed mostly of young men, shouted: “Knife, barbed wire, Srebrenica!” — a grisly chant popular among Serbian soccer fans.
Earlier Sunday, Mladic’s son, Darko, said his father was not responsible for the bloodshed in Srebrenica.
“His orders were to evacuate the wounded, the women and the children and then the fighters,” Darko Mladic said. “Whatever was done behind his back, he has nothing to do with that.”
The senior Mladic’s arrest, 16 years after his indictment by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, has been a key demand by Western governments and a precondition for Serbia’s bid to join the European Union, which Tadic’s pro-Western government has ardently pursued.
Many Serbs believe EU membership will improve their living standards and signal their country’s rehabilitation on the world stage. Winning EU candidate status for Serbia this fall will be crucial for Tadic’s party in general elections next year, proof that handing over Mladic was worth it, said Ljiljana Smajlovic, president of the Assn. of Journalists of Serbia.
“He has kept the European Union dream alive,” Smajlovic said. “If after 31/2 years [of his current term] he doesn’t even have candidate status, that would be a disaster. This kind of keeps him in the running.”