THE HAGUE/BELGRADE (Reuters) - Former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was extradited to the Netherlands on Tuesday to face genocide charges at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague after 16 years on the run.
The 69-year-old arrived in Rotterdam on a Serbian government jet on Tuesday evening. After 90 minutes at the airport, where he was kept out of sight of the media, Mladic was transferred by helicopter to the tribunal's detention centre near The Hague.
Mladic was indicted by the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia over the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
He was arrested on Thursday in a farmhouse in northern Serbia belonging to a cousin and extradited after losing his final legal appeal in Belgrade earlier in the day.
Inside the prison complex, several guards wearing helmets and carrying automatic weapons patrolled the area as the first of two helicopters landed. A convoy of black cars also entered the grounds, but Mladic was not visible to the media.
The Yugoslavia tribunal confirmed later in a statement that Mladic had been transferred to the detention unit.
It said a panel of judges would now be appointed and Mladic would appear in court "without delay". Typically, that means 12 or 24 hours after a suspect's arrival, although Mladic's first court appearance is more likely to be on Thursday or Friday.
The court said the initial appearance of Mladic, whose arrest triggered protests by Serb ultra-nationalists in Serbia and Bosnia, would be announced in due course.
Mladic's lawyer and family had argued he was mentally unstable and too sick to be extradited. Yet the ex-general was able to elude justice for 16 years, a fact that in recent years held back Belgrade's progress in entering the European Union.
Bosnia's ambassador to the Netherlands said she had seen Mladic at the centre and he appeared to be in good health.
"I met him to let him know about Bosnia's embassy in the Netherlands and offered him assistance if he needs something," Ambassador Miranda Sidran-Kamisalic told a television station in Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation late on Tuesday.
"He looked quite good, in a good health condition, focused and rational, he definitely understood everything that was said to him."
Mladic's last day in Serbia, where he spent most of his years on the run, began with a police-escorted visit to the grave of his daughter Ana, who committed suicide in 1994.
During a prison visit on Monday, Mladic met his five-year old grandson, possibly for the first time, and his 10-year-old granddaughter.
Mladic's wife and son paid a final visit to the prison before he was dispatched to Belgrade airport with special police wearing balaclavas, bulletproof vests and automatic rifles.
Serbia's war crimes court earlier rejected an appeal against Mladic's extradition to The Hague, where wartime Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic is already on trial.
Brussels has insisted on Mladic's capture and transfer to the war crimes court as a condition for EU candidacy.
Mladic's arrest also exposed the ethnic tensions that continue to divide Bosnia, where he fought to create a separate Serb entity with the backing of then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic died in his U.N. tribunal cell in 2006.
As a result of the war, Bosnia is made up of a Serb Republic and a Muslim-Croat Federation under a weak central Bosnian government. In the eastern town of Bratunac, near Srebrenica, some 2,000 Bosnian Serbs protested against Mladic's extradition.
"This is a tragedy for the Serb people," said Aco Malevski, an engineer. "Whatever happens in The Hague, Mladic will remain the Serb legend," he told Reuters.
Protesters carried banners reading: "Mladic, thank you for Srebrenica" and "Stop to the Hague court tyranny".
"Mladic was and will always be the true officer and I wish that he behaves so in The Hague," said Zivana Obrenovic, 56, a teacher. "I believe that justice will be on his side and that he will prove that killings in Srebrenica happened behind his back."
Around 10,000 Bosnian Serbs pledged support for Mladic in the Serb Republic capital Banja Luka, an affront to Muslims elsewhere in Bosnia who view the general as a brutal murderer.
Buses arrived from across the Serb Republic, many filled with his former soldiers bearing his photo.
"There are more Mladics in Serbia, they grow and will continue where he stopped," Srdjan Nogo of the ultra-nationalist organisation Srpske Dveri told the crowd.
Such sentiments alarmed Muslims in Bosnia.
"Night after night I shiver in fear that someone may come and force us leave the house and shoot at us," said Emina Bajric, 72, a pensioner from Banja Luka.
"We have been through such an ordeal once and I am not sure if I could go through it again."
Additional reporting by Gordana Katana in Banja Luka, Maja Zuvela in Bratunac and Daria Sito-Sucic is Sarajevo; editing by Mark Heinrich and Alison Williams