Belgrade: General Ratko Mladic`s ruthlessness was legendary: "Burn their brains!" he once bellowed as his men pounded Sarajevo with artillery fire.
So was his arrogance: He nicknamed himself "God," and kept goats which he was said to have named after Western leaders he despised.
Mladic, the wartime Bosnian Serb military chief wanted for genocide for Europe`s worst massacre of civilians since World War II, was the UN war crimes tribunal`s No. 1 co-fugitive together with his partner in crime, Radovan Karadzic.
Mladic, 69, had eluded capture since he was indicted by the tribunal in 1995. But his days as a fugitive were numbered after Serbian security forces captured Karadzic on July 21, 2008, in Belgrade. On Thursday, Serbia`s president announced that Mladic is in custody.
Known for personally leading his troops in the 1995 Serb onslaught against the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica — where thousands of Muslim men and boys were killed — Mladic was indicted for genocide against the Bosnian town`s population.
Just hours before the massacre, Mladic handed out candy to Muslim children rounded up at the town`s square and assured them that all would be fine — even patting one child on the head. That sinister image is forever imprinted in the minds of Srebrenica survivors.
Born March 12, 1942, in the southeastern Bosnian village of Bozinovci, Mladic graduated from Belgrade`s prestigious military academy and joined the Yugoslav Communists in 1965. Embarking on an army career when Yugoslavia was a six-state federation, Mladic rose steadily through the military ranks, making general before the country`s breakup in 1991.
At the start of the Balkan bloodbath, he was in Croatia leading Yugoslav troops in Knin and was believed to have played a crucial role in the army bombardment of the coastal city of Zadar. A year later, he assumed command of the Yugoslav Army`s 2nd Military District, which effectively became the Bosnian Serb army.
Appointed in 1992 by Karadzic, Mladic led the Bosnian Serb army until the Dayton accords brought peace to Bosnia in 1995.
Among his men, Mladic commanded fierce devotion — many Bosnian Serb soldiers pledged to follow him to the death — and adoration bordering on the pathological.
As military leaderships go, his was omnipresent, from front-line trenches to chess games on high-altitude outlooks. He was known for ordering push-ups as a prelude to battle, and he enjoyed reviewing pompous military parades and rubbing shoulders with UN commanders in Bosnia.
Obsessed with his nation`s history, Mladic saw Bosnia`s war — which killed more than 100,000 people and displaced another 1.8 million — as a chance for revenge against 500 years of Turkish-Ottoman occupation of Serbia. He viewed Bosnian Muslims as Turks and called them that as an insult.
Convinced of the power of his army, he was known for telling his soldiers: "When I give you guarantees, it`s as if they are given by God."
Once, asking air traffic control to clear the way for his helicopter to land, he declared: "Here speaks Ratko Mladic — the Serbian God."
Sarajevans never forgot his commands to the Serb gunmen pounding the Bosnian capital in early 1992. Mladic issued his orders through a military radio system, not bothering to scramble his words, which would be picked up, taped and broadcast on television the next day.
"Burn their brains!" he ordered as his gunners trained their artillery on one suburb.
Mladic`s short temper only added to his popularity among Bosnian Serbs, who appeared to like him all the more when the general reportedly fell out with Karadzic in 1994.
With Karadzic, Mladic shares a tribunal indictment for genocide linked to the Srebrenica massacre, as well as numerous counts of crimes against humanity. The allegations include the taking of peacekeepers as hostages, the destruction of sacred places, the torture of captured civilians and the wanton destruction of private property.
During the shelling of Sarajevo, Mladic was said to have commanded: "Scorch and destroy!" He denied ever giving such an order.
The US government offered $5 million for information leading to Mladic`s arrest or conviction in any country.
Mladic was dismissed from his post in December 1996 by Biljana Plavsic, then president of the Bosnian Serb republic. In 2003, Plavsic was sentenced to 11 years in prison in her own war crimes trial on a reduced charge of persecution.
In firing Mladic and his entire general staff, Plavsic cited their indictments for war crimes. But her main aim was to sever links with the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, with whom Mladic was close.
During the war, Milosevic — who died in 2006 while on trial in The Hague for genocide and crimes against humanity — was revered as the Bosnian Serbs` chief patron. But he later abandoned them when he signed the Dayton agreement, a deal intensely disliked by both Karadzic and Mladic.
Evading arrest, Mladic began his fugitive years in Han Pijesak, a military compound in eastern Bosnia built for former Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz Tito and designed to withstand a nuclear attack.
With his wife, Bosa, Mladic settled down to imposed domesticity, passing the time caring for bees and goats. His 23 goats reputedly bore the names of foreign dignitaries he despised, such as Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state.
Surrounded by security guards, he occasionally ventured out of the dense pine forest to mark events such the anniversary of the Bosnian Serb army and St. Vitus Day, a religious festival marking the 1389 Serb defeat by the Turks at Kosovo.
When in the late 1990s his trail grew too hot in Bosnia, Mladic moved with family into a posh suburban villa in the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade.
In Belgrade, he was seen attending his son`s wedding. 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 Milosevic was ousted from power in October 2000, and Yugoslavia`s new pro-democracy authorities signaled they might hand Mladic over to the tribunal, tabloids had him leaving Belgrade for Bosnia.
But true to his style, Mladic countered those rumors and others that had him terminally ill in Belgrade. Before going underground in 2002, he was repeatedly seen in public — sometimes with his guards, sometimes without them.