It said the former French Legionnaire had stayed on the same islands when he was recovering from a battle in the 1980s, fishing, sailing and having an affair with a local schoolteacher who taught him Spanish.
A retired Croatian army general, Gotovina was indicted by the U.N. tribunal in connection with the killings of at least 150 Serbs by troops under his command and for the expulsion of about 150,000 others during Croatia's 1991-95 war.
Elite Spanish police seized Gotovina as he dined Wednesday evening at the Hotel Bitacora on the island of Tenerife. Saturday, Gotovina was taken from a prison outside Madrid and taken to a military base near the capital, a ministry spokeswoman said. He was flown in an armed forces plane to Rotterdam airport, in the Netherlands, from where he was to be driven to The Hague, said the spokeswoman, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.
His supporters had bragged that he would elude arrest forever. But when Gotovina was captured, he hardly made a fuss. After four years on the run, the wanted man appeared resigned as Spanish special troops led him away in handcuffs.
The image he projected was more that of a wealthy tourist than an international fugitive: He wore jeans, a white shirt and a black jacket, making no effort to disguise his appearance even though his photo was on an Interpol warrant.
Instead of being holed up in a remote village, he was caught at a posh restaurant, dining out in the open with a companion. And the alias he used had been widely known for years.
Gotovina's easy arrest has prompted a flurry of speculation in Croatia: Did he strike a deal? Was he betrayed? Knowing the game was up, had he simply been intent on enjoying his last moments of freedom to the fullest?
"Arrest or surrender?" was Friday's headline in the leading daily Vecernji list.
It said Gotovina, considered a hero by many Croatians, probably gave up in the end.
Another daily, 24 sata, quoted the head of a Croatian secret service, Tomislav Karamarko, as saying that Gotovina "perhaps realized that it does not make sense anymore" to run.
The first clear sign that the tide was turning against Gotovina came in October when U.N. Special Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte announced that Croatia was cooperating fully with the search, clearing the way for the Balkan nation to begin EU membership negotiations.
Previously she had insisted that Croatia was obstructing the investigation and even that some government officials were hiding Gotovina. The European Union had told Croatia that membership talks could not begin unless the nation showed it was serious about capturing the retired general.
Many in Croatia are convinced that Gotovina, who joined the French Foreign Legion at the age of 18 and fought in Africa and Latin America in the '70s and '80s before joining Croatian troops in 1991, was too experienced to allow himself to be caught.
Gotovina went into hiding four years ago when the U.N. War Crimes Court in The Hague indicted him for orchestrating the killing of 150 Serbs and expulsion of 150,000 others during Croatia's 1995 offensive to recapture areas seized by rebel Serbs in 1991.
Croatian newspapers have speculated on his whereabouts ever since he went into hiding, placing him under ex-Legionnaires' protection in southern France or even with the mafia in southern Italy.
Spanish authorities said his passport suggested "a high level of mobility," carrying stamps from Tahiti, Argentina, China, Chile, Russia, the Czech Republic and Mauritius.
His pursuers may have gleaned a valuable tip from a biography published by one of his supporters during his years on the run. It said that he had once before taken refuge in the Canary Islands to recuperate from injuries in a battle when he was a French Legionnaire. While he was there he fished, sailed and had a romantic liaison with a schoolteacher who gave him Spanish lessons.
Del Ponte said Thursday she had known since September that Gotovina was in Spain, though she kept it secret. Croatian media said Croatian intelligence services played a crucial role in tracking him down and Western officials thanked Croatian authorities for helping to find him. Some said the CIA also was involved.
There was also speculation that a Croatian businessman disclosed his whereabouts in return for authorities dropping criminal charges against him. Hrvoje Petrac, who allegedly financed Gotovina's hiding, was arrested in Greece in September.