BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro -- Rumors swirled late yesterday that Gen. Ratko Mladic, the fugitive Bosnian Serb commander accused of orchestrating Europe's worst massacre of civilians since World War II, had been captured and was being transferred to an international court in the Netherlands to be tried on war crimes charges.
Serbian officials quickly denied the reports, and a spokesman for the court in The Hague said the panel had no information that an arrest had been made.
People close to the Serbian government and Western sources indicated that intense negotiations are under way between the government and Mladic to persuade him to surrender. Mladic has strong support in Serbia and has long been protected by elements of the army that remain loyal to him.
Chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has said repeatedly that Mladic is in Serbia and in the immediate reach of the authorities.
"We have said for the last 10 days that the arrest could take place very quickly," said Del Ponte's spokeswoman, Florence Hartmann, in The Hague.
In any case, the Serbian government would like to avoid an arrest if possible to minimize the backlash it could suffer if Mladic had to be forcibly extradited to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic are the two leading fugitives in the Balkans who are still being sought for their role in the mid-1990s Bosnian war. They are being sought for their alleged involvement in the 3 1/2 -year siege of Sarajevo and the slaughter of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.
The reports of Mladic's arrest - or, in some accounts, his surrender - came as Serbia faces intense pressure from the international community to turn over the Bosnian Serb army's wartime leader. Mladic had long been believed to be hiding in plain view in Belgrade, although more recently it appeared that he had left the capital, according to news reports.
The European Union had given Serbia until the end of this month to hand Mladic over to The Hague and threatened to freeze EU membership talks otherwise. Serbia, which is in a loose union with Montenegro, is now at the first step in the membership process: negotiating its accession to the European Stabilization and Association Pact.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn will make the assessment of whether Serbia is cooperating fully with the tribunal and it is likely if Mladic is not sent to The Hague that negotiations would be halted.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica relies on a fragile coalition to remain in power and is under pressure from the right and left. The party aligned with former President Slobodan Milosevic has often threatened to pull out of the government if Mladic is arrested. Another party, G-17, is pressuring the government to meet EU demands to turn over Mladic. If either one withdraws its support for Kostunica, the government would fall.
For its part, the government is eager to improve its international standing not only because of its EU aspirations but also because it is trying to maintain its union with Montenegro, which recently has said it wants to seek independence. Serbia also is in the midst of talks on the status of Kosovo, the Albanian-majority province that has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999. Serbia wants to be able to get the best possible deal for Serbs who live and work within Kosovo's borders.
"The longer they delay arresting Mladic, the more it hurts their position on Montenegro and on Kosovo," said James Lyon, the special Balkans adviser to the International Crisis Group.
Alissa J. Rubin and Zoran Cirjakovic write for the Los Angeles Times. Wire services contributed to this article.