On the deserted roads, it was a short unhindered drive to the airport. And the man who is regarded by many as a nationalist hero was about to leave Serbia for perhaps the last time.
It seems the final government approval for the extradition was given soon after Karadzic supporters rioted in the streets of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital.
They had gathered in their thousands in a square in the centre of Belgrade. They had come from Bosnia, from the Serb enclaves of Kosovo and from all over Serbia to express their anger at the arrest of a man they see as a national hero.
In the crowd were those who had fought in the wars in the Balkans, and those too young to remember but who will never be allowed to forget the bloody battles that tore apart the country that once was Yugoslavia.
From the stage, speaker after speaker called for the extradition of Karadzic to be blocked, and they predictably heaped the responsibility on their political rival, Boris Tadic, the Serbian president, for allowing it all to happen.
As the final speaker urged the protestors to march in support of their comrade, he urged them to tear down the government and not Belgrade. It was an ominous phrase.
Suddenly groups of young men who had been on the fringes of the protest suddenly came together in a mob to confront the police.
It started with insults and gestures but soon rocks, bottles and missles rained down on the police lines.
We stood behind the officers in their protective gear and watched as rioters pushed over a concrete rubbish bin and broke off pieces to use as missles.
|Violence broke out after the crowd was urged to tear down the government [AFP]|
Confronted by an angry mob, the police we were with genuinely feared they were about to be overwhelmed.
As they blocked a barrage of missiles with their shields, the senior officer, his voice full of alarm, shouted: “We need support here. We need it now.”
They fired tear gas into the crowd, which made the eyes burn and the skin sting, but still it didn’t deter the troublemakers.
Then the call went out along the line to get ready. “When I call, we go,” said the officer.
Beside us a rock bounced off the padding on an officer’s shoulder. He bent down, picked it up and threw it back in the direction it came.
Suddenly, the police were on the move running at the mob, scattering it down the side streets and the alleys, breaking up the mass of anger they had been staring at.
Any rioter that was caught was soon surrounded and police handed out their own brand of instant justice.
At one point a man who had thrown a rock tried to hide behind a pillar. What followed would have been comic if it hadn’t been so serious. As the man attempted to make himself invisible, two riot squad officers sneaked up on him and drove him from cover with a fierce crack on his arm from a baton.
As the crowd formed into small pockets, police fought running battles but slowly they managed to control the situation. Just when it looked calm was being restored, two young men, T-shirts tied across thier faces, bolted across a road and threw rocks into the big windows of the Balkan Hotel where some people had taken refuge. And just as quickly – damage done – the men melted back into the crowd.
The authorities wanted to avoid any trouble. But this was organised, co-ordinated and violent.
There will be many here hoping that as news of Karadzic’s move to The Hague spreads, the violence of Tuesday night will not be repeated.
The former Bosnian Serb leader’s extradition was inevitable from the moment of his arrest. He leaves behind a mass, angry support base and now faces a future where he will be asked to account for the past.