As European Union leaders intensified threats this week to suspend membership negotiations with Serbia over its failure to arrest top crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, rumors spread that the Balkan country had pinned down the former general and would soon have him in custody.
If Serbia does apprehend Mr. Mladic in the coming days, it could save its bid for EU membership ahead of a key EU meeting Monday that will address the issue.
But more important, the timing of such an arrest would provide the most significant validation yet that the carrot of EU membership - and the consequent pressure on Balkan leaders - has been critical to the success of the war crimes tribunal.
"If it hadn't been for that pressure, nothing would have been done," says James Lyon, a Belgrade-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Indeed, as the EU dangled the possibility of an EU membership feasibility study in front of Serbia last year, the country handed over about a dozen fugitive suspects, through voluntary surrenders or other deals.
And Croatia just overcame its last hurdle with the arrest of its last fugitive general in December, and is now the only western Balkan country that can expect full membership before 2010.
Since the Yugoslav tribunal was established in 1993 by the United Nations, it has indicted 161 individuals, including former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. The tribunal is the first international war crimes court since the trial of Nazi leaders in Nuremberg, marking a significant development in international justice.
The tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte said Wednesday - a day after unconfirmed reports of Mladic's arrest surfaced in Bosnian and Serbian media - that the role of the EU was particularly crucial at this moment.
"I need now a strong support of the EU to have Mladic in The Hague, very, very soon," said Ms. del Ponte. "Clear deadlines associated with clear sanctions will produce early results."
Her request may be met Monday when the EU's council of ministers meet to decide whether to suspend membership negotiations with Serbia over Mladic and four other Serbian suspects wanted by the tribunal in The Hague.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said Thursday that talks indeed would be suspended if Serbia did not cooperate fully in finding Mladic. And an EU source in Belgrade said that "there is pressure from the powerful member states to sanction the noncooperation - out of the 25 [EU states], it's probably 20."
Mladic has been at large since being indicted in 1995 for genocide over the massacre of some 8,000 Muslims after his troops overran the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Though Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia signed the US-brokered peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio, later that year and pledged to bring in indicted war crimes suspects, Mladic and others remained free - in spite of the 60,000 heavily-armed NATO peacekeeping troops in Bosnia at the time.
NATO troops - including 20,000 Americans - were under orders from their own countries, and those countries had no desire to make arrests.
"NATO and the US were deeply reluctant to get involved in the process of apprehending war criminals - there was a great fear that if they went after these guys, [troops] would be killed and it would turn into a Somalia," says Tufts University international relations professor Bruce Hitchner, who has chaired the Dayton Peace Accords Project since the mid-1990s.
Several years later, the EU began issuing travel bans and international agencies in Bosnia began freezing the assets of people thought to be affiliated with fugitives. And both NATO and the Union have made memberships in their exclusive clubs depend on cooperation with the tribunal.
Mr. Lyon of ICG says it's likely the EU will suspend negotiations with Serbia next week if Mladic is not apprehended by then. Such a move would be more than a slap on the wrist, he notes. Suspended talks would make foreign investors think twice; suspended talks could also rupture Serbia's governing coalition, as one party has already threatened to walk if the talks stall.
Suspension would also likely echo outside Serbia's borders. The country is currently in UN-mediated talks over the future of Serbia's Kosovo province - under UN control since 1999 - and the international community could have little sympathy for Serbia's claims if Serbia can't arrest suspects within its own borders.
Serbia's junior republic of Montenegro is also clamoring for independence from Serbia; a suspension could mean a larger wave of pro-independence voters in Montenegro at the planned springtime poll.
But Lyon applauds the EU's toughness, and says suspending talks could be the tip of the iceberg if Serbia doesn't cooperate.
"We want to know why they weren't threatening like this three years ago and four years ago," he says. "Besides simply cutting off negotiations, later on down the road they could do other things like removing trade preferences."
The Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladic was indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal on two counts of genocide for a 43-month siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males in Srebrenica in July 1995.
• He went underground in 2001 after his protector, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, was toppled. The tribunal said General Mladic was in Serbia. NATO said he had visited his old bunker in Bosnia in 2004 to drink with friends, under the noses of police.
• Mladic was born in the village of Bozanovici in southern Bosnia on March 12, 1942, the son of a partisan killed by pro-Nazi Croatian troops in 1945. As a child he wanted to be a teacher, but he went to the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, for military studies and was one of the top graduates.
• He began his Army career in 1965, becoming a brigadier over 20 years - a slow rate of progress that colleagues attributed to an undisciplined manner. He spent most of his career in Macedonia, with short stays in Croatia and Kosovo.
• On May 15, 1992 - with Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims fighting for control of multiethnic Bosnia - Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic made Mladic commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, a position he held until December 1996.
• With the arrest of Croatian war crimes fugitive Ante Gotovina in December 2005, the full force of international diplomatic pressure focused on Serbia, held responsible for Mladic and five other fugitives still at large.