BRUSSELS - The arrest of the last Serbian international war crimes fugitive removes the final obstacle for the opening of accession talks between Serbia and the European Union.
Goran Hadzic, who was part of the rebel administration in an eastern region of Croatia, had sought refuge in neighboring Serbia after the enclave was handed back to Croatia in the mid-1990s.
His arrest comes two months after Serbian police hunted down Ratko Mladic, the notorious commander of the Bosnian Serb army.
Serbia's government has made EU membership its top foreign policy priority. But the EU had repeatedly blocked the granting of candidate status a step toward full membership to Serbia until Mladic was apprehended.
Hadzic, who is wanted for crimes stemming from Croatia's 1991-95 war, is considered a minor player compared to Mladic but his arrest was a condition that Serbia needed to fulfill before becoming a formal candidate for membership in the 27-nation bloc.
Hadzic headed one of the three Serb enclaves within Croatia, which proclaimed themselves independent in 1991. He was seen as a figurehead who collaborated with Serbia's secret police and profited from the smuggling of cars, gasoline and cigarettes during the war.
Hadzic was indicted in 2004 with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including "persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, extermination, murder, torture, deportation and forcible transfer" as well as "wanton destruction ... or devastation."
The indictment alleges that Hadzic committed the crimes with an aim to drive the Croats and other non-Serbs from the territories controlled by his self-styled authorities.
Hadzic has managed to evade justice for years, despite international pressure for his arrest. He narrowly escaped arrest in northern Serbia, apparently thanks to a tip from within the Serbian security authorities.
Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, said the arrests of Mladic and Hadzic "mark a long-awaited step forward in Serbia's cooperation."
EU leaders immediately welcomed the arrest and saluted "the determination and commitment" of Tadic's government.
"This is a further important step for Serbia in realizing its European perspective and equally crucial for international justice," said a joint statement by EU president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barrios and foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"Following the capture of Ratko Mladic, this arrest sends a positive signal to the European Union and to Serbia's neighbors, but most of all on the rule of law in Serbia itself," the statement said. "The Serbian nation is in the process of confronting the past and turning the page to a better European future."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also hailed Tadic's government for fulfilling its international obligations.
"Following the transfer of Ratko Mladic to the Hague, this arrest will allow for the most painful chapter in recent European history to be closed," Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement.
In October, the European Commission the EU's executive arm is due to present its progress report on Serbia which is now expected to conclude that it has fulfilled the requirements for candidacy. That report is scheduled to be adopted by member states by December, allowing talks on accession to open by spring.
Like other candidate countries, it will then take several years for Serbia to negotiate and meet the government and economic reforms that the EU demands to meet its free-market and democratic requirements. Legislation and new laws will be required on everything from farming and health care, to justice and public administration, to manufacturing and financial markets.
Tim Judah, a London-based Balkan analyst and author, said Hadzic's arrest was "great news" for the entire Western Balkans.
"One can view many of the important events in the Western Balkans in the last few years as the tying up of loose ends left over from the wars of the 1990s," he said. "His arrest closes the book on this unhappy chapter."
"It should also put an end any kind of lingering doubts about Serbia's sincerity within the EU," Judah said.