BELGRADE Ratko Mladic lived openly at home in Belgrade until 2002, seven years after an international war crimes tribunal indictment, often receiving visitors for meals, rakia and music, a friend said on Monday.
"He was a very engaged person throughout that time," Aleksandar Mihailovic, who lived a few houses down and whose firm built Mladic's house, told Reuters. "He loved songs, rakia, eating -- he was a very normal person."
Mladic was arrested last Thursday at a farmhouse of a cousin in a village 100 km (60 miles) northeast of Belgrade.
As recently as this month, the U.N. war crimes prosecutor had said Serbia was not doing enough to find Mladic, who is awaiting extradition to the Hague in the coming days on charges of genocide in the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the Bosnia war.
His arrest was key for Serbia to progress towards eventual European Union membership.
"He lived normally until 2002," said Mihailovic, deputy chairman at his family's Stankom real estate development firm. "Everybody came by to pay their respects... He was not the type of person to sit around and do nothing."
Mladic often traded stories about family and friends and was a keen soccer fan in the postwar years. He attended an occasional soccer game or visited restaurants in the capital, and lived off his military pension, Mihailovic said. Many sought out his advice and help.
The former Bosnian Serb general was in Belgrade during the 1999 NATO bombing over Kosovo, he said. In 2002, "one day he disappeared," he said.
"What happened afterwards only he can say."
In October 2002, the international criminal court issued an amended indictment against Mladic, a year after Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was sent to The Hague. The same year the Serbian government signed a law allowing the extradition of suspects and urged all war crimes suspects to surrender.
Mladic was also spotted from time to time in the Serb Republic part of Bosnia in the second half of the 1990s, but NATO troops stationed there did not act against him at the time.
FRIENDSHIP FORGED IN WAR
Mihailovic said he first met Mladic in 1991, when his firm, which was close to the Yugoslav government in the 1990s, received an order to build 800 military apartments. The firm was involved in the Bosnian Serb region of Bosnia later on and he said he also played a military role in the war.
He said he has remained close to the family since then, and employed Mladic's son Darko, a computer specialist, until officials suggested he should discontinue the arrangement.
The real estate developer, whose firm also owns a local soccer team, agreed to speak out for the first time after receiving the blessing of the Mladic family.
Some of his arguments could foreshadow the criminal defence strategy for Mladic.
He said the siege of Sarajevo, in which 10,000 died, was a legitimate military operation, and as a commander responsible for the entire war, Mladic could not have known about the details of the Srebrenica massacre.
"Everything that happened followed the fall of Srebrenica," Mihailovic said. "Do you think a person of such capability, such professionalism, would allow what is undeniably a horrible crime?"
"I just cannot connect that with Mr. Mladic, that he would allow things to proceed in such a way."
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are confident they will prove that Mladic was a ruthless murderer who did indeed instigate such crimes.
Mevludin Oric, a Bosnian Muslim from Srebrenica who survived the mass execution hiding under a pile of corpses, said that he saw Mladic at the door of the school gym where captives were crammed moments before they were led away to be executed.
"People whispered: look, it's Mladic. There he stood with his bodyguards, overlooking the gym, laughing," Oric told Reuters in an interview in 2005.
After 1995, Mihailovic said Mladic rarely spoke about the war and his stature was such that few would question him about the past. "Srebrenica was long a taboo theme. What happened wasn't exactly clear," Mihailovic added.
International revulsion at the continued shelling of Sarajevo, a city filled with civilians, by Mladic's army prompted NATO military intervention in 1995 that ended the war.
After the war, the Serb Republic continued to exist as one of two halves of Bosnia, but not as an independent state as Mladic had hoped to create. "It was most normal that there was disappointment," Mihailovic said. "From 1995 on, everything bad was put on Mladic's shoulders, whether it was his responsibility or not."
Serbian officials expect to complete the legal appeals process and extradite Mladic to the Hague this week. His supporters argue he is unfit to stand trial.
"This is an old dying man. This is not General Ratko Mladic," the friend said. "I don't recognise General Mladic."
(Editing by Diana Abdallah)