BELGRADE, Serbia - Ratko Mladic, the ruthless Bosnian Serb military leader charged with orchestrating Europe's worst massacre of civilians since World War II, was arrested at a relative's home in a tiny Serbian village on Thursday after a 16-year hunt for the architect of what a war-crimes judge called "scenes from hell."
Mladic's dawn arrest removed the most important barrier to the Western-leaning Serbian government's efforts to join the European Union and to rehabilitate the country's image as a pariah state that sheltered the men responsible for the worst atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Mladic had two pistols when he was arrested but offered no resistance, and he appeared shrunken, bald and pale, Serbian officials and media said.
"We have ended a difficult period of our history and removed the stain from the face of Serbia and the members of our nation wherever they live," President Boris Tadic said in a triumphant press conference announcing the arrest.
Tadic said Serbia had begun the process of extraditing the former general to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Mladic, 69, faces life imprisonment if tried and convicted of genocide and other charges. The U.N. court has no death penalty.
Rasim Ljajic, a government minister in charge of cooperation with the U.N. tribunal, said "Mladic looked like an old man" when he was arrested.
"One could pass by him without recognizing him," Ljajic said.
"He was pale, which could mean he rarely ventured out of the house a probable reason why he went unnoticed," he said.
Ljajic said said Mladic had two handguns in his possession, but did not resist the arrest and "was cooperative."
"He spoke normally to the members of the security services," Ljajic said.
Belgrade B-92 radio said one of Mladic's arms was paralyzed probably the result of a stroke.
Serbian state TV said Mladic was bald and appeared "worn out."
Serbian police said they have banned all gatherings and raised security levels throughout the country in case of violent nationalist reaction to the arrest.
The nationalist Serbian Radical Party said Mladic is a "hero" and described his seizure as "one of the hardest moments in Serbian history."
The extreme-right group 1389 said the arrest was "a treason" and called on citizens to pour into the streets and protest.
Foremost among the horrors Mladic is charged with is the July 1995 slaughter of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which was supposed to be a safe zone guarded by Dutch peacekeepers.
A bullnecked field commander with narrow, piercing blue eyes, Mladic seized the town and was seen handing candy to Muslim children in the town's square. He assured them everything would be fine and patted one boy on the head. Hours later, his men began days of killing, rape and torture.
War crimes tribunal judge Fouad Riad said during Mladic's 1995 indictment in absentia that the court had seen evidence of "unimaginable savagery: thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson."
"These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history," he said.
But even as Balkan war-crimes fugitives such as Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were brought to The Hague, Mladic was idolized and sheltered by ultranationalists and ordinary Serbs despite a 10 million euro ($14 million) Serbian government bounty, plus $5 million offered by the U.S. State Department.
He was known to have made daring forays into Belgrade to watch soccer games and feast on fish at an elite restaurant.
In a particularly brazen touch, he had been using the alias Milorad Komadic, an anagram of his true identity, police said.
Before sunrise, agents of Serbia's domestic intelligence agency moved quietly on Mladic's hideout, a single-story yellow brick house owned by a relative of the fugitive's mother, said Radmilo Stanisic, the de facto mayor of Lazarevo, a village of some 2,000 residents about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Belgrade.
"They didn't even wake us up," said a resident who identified himself only as Zoran. "I'm furious. They arrested our hero."
A sign reading "Mladic Hero" was posted on the entrance of the village as police vehicles guarded the house where Mladic was arrested.
Serbia's B-92 radio said Mladic did not resist the arrest and "was cooperative."
Justice officials in The Hague said it will take at least a week before Mladic is handed over.
Regular reports on Serbia's compliance with the chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor are crucial for its efforts to become an EU member candidate. The prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, had long complained that authorities were not doing enough to capture Mladic and other war-crimes fugitives.