THE HAGUE: Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic taunted Srebrenica survivors at the start of his trial for genocide yesterday, running his hand across his throat in a gesture of defiance to relatives of victims of the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.
Mladic, now 70, flashed a thumbs-up and clapped his hands as he entered the courtroom in The Hague, where he faces possible life imprisonment for allegedly leading the slaughter of 8,000 unarmed Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica in 1995.
In the packed public seating area, a mother of one of the Srebrenica victims whispered 'vulture' several times as prosecutors opened their case.
Presiding judge Alphons Orie held a brief recess and ordered an end to 'inappropriate interactions'.
Two dozen mothers of victims of the Srebrenica massacre gathered outside the court, some holding signs, one of which read: 'Mladic, the greatest murder of innocent people and children.'
Mladic is the last of the main protagonists of the 1990s Balkan wars to go on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
Prosecutor Dermot Groome said Mladic and other Bosnian Serbs had divided the territory of the former Yugoslavia along ethnic lines and implemented a common plan to exterminate non-Serbs.
'The prosecution will present evidence that will show beyond a reasonable doubt the hand of Mr Mladic in each of these crimes,' he said.
Video footage shot at the time showed Mladic mingling with Muslim prisoners. Shortly afterwards, the men and boys were separated from the women, stripped of identification and shot. The dead were bulldozed into mass graves, then later dug up with excavators and hauled away in trucks to be better hidden from the world in dozens of remote mass graves.
Mladic is accused of orchestrating not only the week-long massacre in Srebrenica, at the time a United Nations 'safe haven', but also the 43-month siege of Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 people were killed by snipers, machine guns and heavy artillery.
But Mladic, who was arrested in May last year after 16 years on the run, has dismissed the charges as 'monstrous', and says he is too ill to stand trial. The court entered a 'not guilty' plea on his behalf.
The case has stirred deep emotions in the Balkans, and yesterday's proceedings were broadcast live on big screens in Sarajevo, where thousands died between 1992 and 1995.
Said Mr Fikret Grabovica, president of an association of parents and children killed in the siege of Sarajevo: 'I hope that many of those who are disillusioned and believe that Mladic is a Serb hero will change their minds, and that the trial will demonstrate that he was just a criminal and a coward.'
Prosecutors say Mladic was part of a 'joint criminal enterprise to eliminate the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica by killing the men and boys... and forcibly removing the women, young children and some elderly men'.
Mladic was indicted in 1995 along with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader. Yet both remained free in Serbia for more than a decade before being tracked down and sent to The Hague. Karadzic's trial is already under way.
Defence lawyers say they have not had enough time to review the huge case file prepared by prosecutors, and asked for the trial to be postponed, but the request was denied.
Mladic's mentor, former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, the architect of the Balkan wars, died in detention in 2006, a few months before a verdict was due in his trial for genocide and other war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.