Shortly before dawn on Thursday, a convoy of unmarked Volkswagens drove into the village of Lazarevo, a drab agricultural town in the north of Serbia near the Romanian border. At 5:30, they stopped in front of a white stuccoed house. Some burly men stepped out and knocked on the door, the second one they'd tried that morning.
They found an old man, frail and somewhat inarticulate, one of his arms seeming paralyzed. He carried two pistols, which he surrendered willingly, and as his relatives dressed him he chatted with the security officials and gave his name: Ratko Mladic.
With that, the officers of Serbia's Security Information Agency had found the man who, since the death of Osama bin Laden, has been the most wanted fugitive in the world – the militia commander who, in his drive to turn neighbouring Bosnia into a purely ethnic-Serb state in the early 1990s, allegedly ordered a sequence of atrocities, acts of terror and mass murder that have had him fleeing multiple charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for 16 years.
The operation, which Serbian President Boris Tadic likened to the U.S. killing of Mr. bin Laden, appeared to draw on information gleaned from raids last year on the homes of Mr. Mladic's wife, Bosiljka, and son Darko. Serbian officials described it as part of a "new strategy," which seemed to involve isolating teams of security forces to avoid their detection by Mladic loyalists in the ranks.
It was immediately apparent that this was the moment Serbia's democratic leaders had been seeking, but somehow failing to find, for a decade.
"A difficult period of our history is over and Serbia's reputation is no longer tarnished … it is good for Serbia that it has closed this chapter of our history," Mr. Tadic announced Thursday.
European leaders cheered Mr. Tadic at the G8 summit in France, and acknowledged the country had finally passed the last barrier to full membership in the community of nations.
"Serbia is a country that has suffered a lot but the fact it has delivered presumed war criminals is very good news," French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared. "It's one more step toward Serbia's integration one day into the European Union."
In a sign that Serbia was not acting entirely on its own timeline, the European Union's enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule had visited only weeks earlier and had warned that Serbia is "running out of time" and could lose its chance to gain full European Union membership if the fugitive was not found.
On Thursday, after the arrest, Mr. Fule said that Serbia would immediately be given access to EU accession, even though one less famous fugitive, the Croatia-based Serbian leader Goran Hadzic, remains at large.
Serbian officials acted quickly Thursday night to bring Mr. Mladic before a war-crimes judge in Belgrade, in hopes of flying him off immediately to the cells and courtrooms of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, the Netherlands.
After he appeared, wearing several layers of clothes, a hooded overcoat and a dark baseball cap – in spite of the summer-like weather – he was questioned by Serbian war-crimes judge Milan Dilparic, who declared that the fugitive was too incoherent and confused to face an immediate deportation. The courts will try again on Friday. With appeals, his deportation could take a week or more.
Mr. Mladic, as expected, was sheltered in Serbia by hundreds of other Bosnian Serbs, including several of his relatives who owned houses, probably including his own, in the village. Even after his arrest on Thursday, they protested and tried to drive out reporters who came to photograph his house, mounting a blockade to stop traffic and putting up a sign reading "Mladic – Hero" on the town's entrance.
"They didn't even wake us up," one resident, Zoran, told reporters. "I'm furious. They arrested our hero."
It seems almost inevitable, in retrospect, that the raid would end up homing in on the northern Serbian region of Vojvodina, a province packed with ethnic-Serb immigrants from Bosnia and fraught with conflicts between its many ethnic groups. The region is a hive of support for the ethnic-nationalist Radicals, whose supporters still represent perhaps a third of Serbians.
On Thursday night, at least 500 people rioted in the nearby provincial capital of Novi Sad in support of Mr. Mladic; at least two were injured. Serbian police imposed a ban on public assemblies and raised alert levels to guard against nationalist revolts. Mr. Mladic may be gone, but his fans are many.