Serbia's last major war crimes fugitive, a Croatian Serb wartime leader indicted for crimes against humanity during the 1991-95 Croatian war, has been arrested.

Boris Tadic, Serbia's president, said on Wednesday that Goran Hadzic was arrested in the mountainous Fruska Gora region of northern Serbia.

"With this, Serbia, has concluded its most difficult chapter in the cooperation with the Hague Tribunal," Tadic said in a televised statement.

Tadic said his country has now concluded its "legal duties ... as well as its moral duty", meeting EU demands that it track down and arrest all war crimes fugitives.

The Serbian president denied that authorities in his country knew where Hadzic had been hiding.

"Serbia did not know where Goran Hadzic was," Tadic said.

"Our security and intelligence agency as well as members of the interior ministry have carried out their duties in accordance with law."

Hadzic was a key figure in the breakaway Krajina Serb republic in Croatia and was also Serbia's last remaining figure sought by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

In all, the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indicted 161 people and Hadzic is the last to be arrested.

His detention follows the arrests of former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic in May and that of Radovan Karadzic in August 2008.

Mladic is now on trial at The Hague for his role in atrocities committed during the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict.

Good news for humanity

Serge Brammertz, the prosecutor for the UN's war crimes court  at The Hague on Wednesday welcomed the arrest of Hadzic, his special advisor said.

In depth

Barnaby Phillips reports from Vukovar in eastern Croatia on Hadzic's arrest

"The prosecutor of the ICTY welcomes the arrest today of Goran Hadzic. Today marks the arrest of the last of the 161 persons indicted by the tribunal," Frederick Swinnen told a press conference in The Hague.

Jadranka Kosor, Croatia's prime minster, hailed Hadzic's arrest.

"The arrest of Hadzic is good news for humanity, for the world and above all for Croatia," Kosor said during a visit to Poland.

However, she said, it had taken two decades to capture the former leader of Croatia's rebel Serbs, who opposed its split from Yugoslavia.

In Brussels, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general, welcomed the news of the arrest and commended Serbian authorities for fulfilling their 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," Rasmussen said in a statement.

Evaded justice

Hadzic was indicted in 2004 for 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 alleged 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.

He is notably wanted in connection with the massacre of about 250 civilian refugees taken from a hospital in Vukovar, an eastern city on the border with Serbia, in November 1991.

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.

The country's post-war authorities have for years faced accusations that they were not doing enough to hunt down the war crimes suspects.

The issue had also blocked Serbia's bid at European Union membership.

The EU, which hailed Belgrade for finding Mladic in May, had continued to insist on the arrest of Hadzic for Serbia to make progress towards EU membership.

More than 10,000 people died in the Croatian war which ended when Zagreb, the Croatian capital, retook the territories held by the Serbs in 1995.

Serbia's wartime president Milosevic was extradited to the Hague tribunal in 2001 and died there in 2006, while on trial for genocide.

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Source: Agencies