The global economic downturn is hitting Serbia hard, so you’d think quite a few Serbs would be interested in the €1m reward that the government is offering to pay for information leading to the arrest of Ratko Mladic. Curiously, however, the trail of the fugitive Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect never seems to get any warmer.

Roughly two months ago, a western government passed a tip to the Serbian government as to Mladic’s whereabouts. A raid was carried out, but the tip turned out to be a dud. Wisely, perhaps, the Serbian authorities chose not to publicise this incident.

In contrast, a police search of a factory in the central Serbian town of Valjevo on November 10 received extensive media coverage, though it led to no better results. This operation took place just a week before Serge Brammertz, the chief United Nations war crimes prosecutor, arrived in Belgrade to prepare his report on how actively Serbia is co-operating with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

If Brammertz’s report is positive, it will strengthen Serbia’s case that the European Union should accept it as an official candidate for membership. In this sense, the Valjevo raid was conveniently timely.

So where is Mladic, and who knows where he is? The former Serbian government, led by Vojislav Kostunica, knew perfectly well where Mladic was until at least January 2005. But Kostunica refused to have him arrested. The former Bosnian Serb military commander then faded from sight. However, he is known to have a heart condition, and in recent years some interesting evidence about the use of certain heart prescription drugs has been picked up in various parts of Serbia.

According to Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s interior minister, “nobody in the world has the impression that the Serbian government is protecting and hiding Mladic”. Western governments would agree, in the sense that they don’t think President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic and other ministers are shielding Mladic. However, they suspect that other elements in the Serbian power apparatus do know the whereabouts of Mladic, who is assumed to be guarded by a corps of diehard loyalists.

The ease with which Serbia’s authorities arrested Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader, in July suggests it ought not to be impossible to catch Mladic one day, too – even if he is in a bizarre Karadzic-like disguise. On the other hand, Osama bin Laden is still on the run more than seven years after 9/11 – and the reward for information leading to his capture is up to $25m.

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