BELGRADE, Serbia, June 21 - The Serbian government gave its clearest indication this week that it was seeking the surrender of Gen. Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb Army commander wanted for orchestrating the killing of at least 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica nearly a decade ago.
For the first time, government officials on Tuesday confirmed that they had sought contact with the secret support network that has helped to keep General Mladic in hiding for at least eight years.
Their hope, they say, is to secure his voluntary surrender to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, as was the case with the 14 other Serb war crimes suspects that have been sent to the court from Serbia this year.
If Serbia succeeds in transferring General Mladic to The Hague, it will be a substantial victory for the moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica, who has refused to adopt a policy of openly arresting war crimes suspects.
Speculation has intensified over the last two weeks as the 10th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica, on July 11, 1995, approaches, but the government has denied that it is conducting negotiations.
However, in an interview, Serbia's chief government spokesman, Srdjan Djuric, conceded that efforts were being made to reach members of the Mladic support network to secure a possible surrender.
"Considering how highly sensitive this is, the Serbian government does not announce results before they have happened," Mr. Djuric said. "Any detail could jeopardize the whole process."
A senior American official in Washington said he had learned from Serbian officials that they contacted supporters of General Mladic after a videotape appeared in June showing paramilitaries from Serbia executing six Bosnian Muslim prisoners from Srebrenica.
"There is a lot of very detailed work on it," said the American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be perceived as speaking for officials in Belgrade.
Serbian officials said they had been pressuring the general's supporters to reveal his whereabouts, or to persuade him to surrender, the official said.
For most of the last decade General Mladic has been hiding in Serbia and has spent most of his time on military bases, Serbian officials say. Serbian officials recently told the American official that for the last year General Mladic had been sheltered by a shadowy network of military and civilian supporters, the same tactic used by the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, in neighboring Bosnia, who is also wanted by the Hague tribunal.
Diplomats and government officials in Belgrade said the most recent sighting of General Mladic was in May 2003, at a Serbian Army barracks.
It is not known whether General Mladic is still in Serbia.
The leading Serbian rights advocate, Natasha Kandic, whose Humanitarian Law Center monitors war crimes cases, said General Mladic had two support networks, one consisting of former members of the Yugoslav military intelligence service, the other of Bosnian Serbs.
American officials have been telling Serbia's leaders since 2002 that Serbia is responsible for General Mladic's surrender and that their country will "never be allowed" to join NATO as long as the fugitive general remains free, R. Nicholas Burns, the American under secretary of state for political affairs, said in a telephone interview from Washington. "Our view is they want to find him for the first time in 10 years," said Mr. Burns, who visited Belgrade on June 9.
Official to Skip Ceremony
THE HAGUE, June 23 (Reuters) - The chief United Nations war crimes prosecutor said Thursday that she was too ashamed to attend the 10th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica next month because the two main suspects were still at large.
The prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, told diplomats at The Hague that she could not show her face at the commemoration in Bosnia on July 11 because Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic were still on the run.
Nicholas Wood reported from Belgrade for this article, and David Rohde from Boston.