THE HAGUE - Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic taunted Srebrenica survivors on Wednesday at the start of his trial for genocide, running his hand across his throat in a gesture of defiance to relatives of the worst massacre in Europe since World War Two.
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.
Later, Mladic made eye contact with one of the Muslim women in the audience, running a hand across his throat, in a gesture that led Presiding judge Alphons Orie to hold a brief recess and order an end to "inappropriate interactions."
Wearing a dark suit and tie, he sat, spectacles in hand, listening intently and jotting notes as prosecutors made their opening remarks.
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.
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."
Kada Hotic, who lost her 29-year son, husband and two brothers, said she was worried Mladic might not live long enough for the verdict, like the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his trial.
Mladic is the last of the main protagonists in the Balkan wars of the 1990s to go on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
He is accused of orchestrating not only the week-long massacre in Srebrenica, at the time a UN "safe haven", but also the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 people were killed by snipers, machineguns and heavy artillery.
The list of charges stemming from his actions as the Serb military commander in the Bosnian war of 1992-95 ranges from genocide to murder, acts of terror and other crimes against humanity.
But Mladic, who was arrested last May 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.
Case stirs up deep emotions
The case has stirred up deep emotions in the Balkans and Wednesday's proceedings were broadcast live on big screens in Sarajevo, where thousands died between 1992 and 1995.
"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," Fikret Grabovica, president of the association of parents and children killed in the siege of Sarajevo, told Reuters.
"My father is gone and the agony continues for the victims," said Bosnian Muslim Sudbin Music, who represents a group of wartime prisoners.
"Even if Mladic lives until the verdict, it will bring only mild satisfaction for the victims of Srebrenica and hundreds of other places in the Serb Republic.
Mladic has been angry and defiant during pre-trial hearings, heckling the judge, shouting and interrupting the proceedings.
"The whole world knows who I am," he told a hearing last year. "I am General Ratko Mladic. I defended my people, my country ... now I am defending myself."
Mladic was in charge of the Bosnian Serb army when, over several days in July 1995, Serb fighters overran the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia, theoretically under the protection of Dutch UN peacekeepers.
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.
Victims bulldozed into mass graves
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.
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 is also held responsible for the siege and bombardment of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, which prosecutors said was intended to "spread terror among the civilian population".
The horrors of the siege, together with the Srebrenica massacre, eventually galvanised world opinion in support of the campaign of Western air strikes on Bosnian Serb targets that brought the conflict to an end shortly after.
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 have enough time to review the huge case file prepared by prosecutors and asked for the trial to be postponed, but the request was denied.
Serge Brammertz, the court's chief prosecutor, has dismissed Mladic's assertion that he is too frail to sit through a 200-hour prosecution case involving testimony from 411 witnesses.
His appearance in The Hague is testament to the work of the tribunal, which has defied sceptics by managing, in the course of 19 years, to arrest all its 161 indictees.
But some victims still fear that Mladic, who has received physical therapy for a possible stroke, could escape judgment by dying in mid-trial.
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 in his trial for genocide and other war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.