Protesters throwing stones and bottles clashed with baton-wielding riot police Sunday in Belgrade after several thousand Serbian nationalist supporters of jailed war-crimes suspect Ratko Mladic rallied outside the parliament building to demand his release.
By the time the crowds broke up by late evening, about 100 people were arrested and 16 minor injuries were reported. That amounted to a victory for the pro-Western government, which arrested Mladic on Thursday, risking the wrath of the nationalist old guard in a country with a history of much larger and more virulent protests.
Rioters overturned garbage containers, broke traffic lights and set off firecrackers as they rampaged through downtown. Cordons of riot police blocked their advances, and skirmishes took place in several locations in the center of the capital.
Doctors said six police officers were among the 16 people brought to a hospital with minor injuries. Police remained on the streets as the crowds broke up.
The clashes began after a rally that drew at least 7,000 demonstrators, many singing nationalist songs and carrying banners honoring Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander. Some chanted right-wing slogans and a few gave Nazi salutes.
Supporters of the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party were bused in to attend the rally. Right-wing extremists and hooligan groups also urged followers to appear in large numbers, creating the biggest test of Serbian sentiment and the government’s resolve since Mladic’s arrest.
The demonstrators, who consider Mladic a hero, said Serbia should not hand him over to the UN war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.
“Cooperation with The Hague tribunal represents treason,” Radical Party official Lidija Vukicevic told the crowd. “This is a protest against the shameful arrest of the Serbian hero.”
Demonstrators demanded the ouster of Serbian President Boris Tadic, who ordered Mladic’s arrest. A sign on the stage read, “Tadic is not Serbia.”
More than 3,000 riot police were deployed around government buildings and Western embassies, fearing that the demonstration could turn violent. Riot police tried to block small groups of extremists from reaching the rally.
Nationalists are furious that the Serbian government apprehended Mladic after nearly 16 years on the run. The 69-year-old former general was caught at a relative’s home in a northern Serbian village.
The UN tribunal charged Mladic with genocide in 1995, accusing him of orchestrating the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica and other war crimes of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war. Mladic’s arrest is considered critical to Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union, and to reconciliation in the region after a series of ethnic wars of the 1990s.
Mladic’s son, Darko Mladic, said Sunday that despite the indictment, his father insists he was not responsible for the mass executions committed by his troops after they overran the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995.
“Whatever was done behind his back, he has nothing to do with that,” Darko Mladic said.
The massacre in Srebrenica is considered to be Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. Bosnian Serb troops under Mladic’s command rounded up boys and men and executed them over several days, burying the remains in mass graves in the area. Prosecutors say they have compelling evidence that Mladic personally ordered and oversaw the executions in and around Srebrenica.
But Serb nationalists in Serbia and parts of Bosnia still consider Mladic a hero – the general who against all odds tried to defend Serbs in the Bosnian conflict. Among his men, Mladic commanded fierce devotion – many Bosnian Serb soldiers pledged to follow him to the death.
Some 3,000 supporters arrived Sunday by bus from other parts of Bosnia to a rally at Kalinovik, the area where Mladic grew up. Many wore black T-shirts with Mladic’s picture and the words “Serbia in my heart.”
The crowd called Tadic a “betrayer” for ordering the arrest of “the Serb hero” and urged him to “kill himself.” Many said they would fight under Mladic again.
Many of the Kalinovik protesters headed afterward to the shack Mladic was born in at the end of a steep, muddy road in the village of Bozanici, turning the shabby house into a pilgrimage site. Mladic’s aunt and cousins spoke to them, telling stories about Mladic’s childhood.
Mladic’s family and lawyers have been fighting his extradition, arguing that the former general is too ill to face charges. The family plans to appeal the extradition on Monday and to demand an independent medical checkup – moves described by the authorities as a delaying tactics.
“He’s a man who has not taken care of his health for a while, but not to the point that he cannot stand trial,” Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric told The Associated Press. “According to doctors, he doesn’t need hospitalization.”
Mladic has suffered at least two, and possibly three, strokes, the latest in 2008, his son said. The suspect’s right arm is only semi-functional, and his family says he is not lucid – but Vekaric said that assessment was not true.
Lawyer Milos Saljic says that Mladic above all keeps demanding that he be allowed to visit the grave of his daughter, who committed suicide in 1994.
“He says if he can’t go there, he wants his daughter’s coffin brought in here,” the lawyer added. “His condition is alarming.”
Saljic said the family does not believe that Mladic would receive proper medical attention in The Hague. He noted that several high-profile Serbs had died there, including former President Slobodan Milosevic, who suffered a heart attack.