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THE HAGUE - Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic made a throat-slitting gesture to a woman who lost her son, husband and brothers in the Srebenica massacre at the start of his trial on Wednesday for some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War Two.
Mladic, now 70, flashed a defiant thumbs-up as he entered the courtroom - 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.
A hero to Serb nationalists, the "Butcher of the Balkans" to his Muslim and Croat victims, the pugnacious general eluded justice for 16 years until his capture in a cousin's farmhouse in Serbia last May.
He is accused of orchestrating not only the week-long massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica but also the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 people were killed by snipers, machine guns and heavy artillery.
More than 100,000 people were killed in the 3-year war and 2.2 million were left homeless.
Mladic, who refused to enter a plea, cuts a much frailer figure now than his bullish, strutting wartime persona - his defense lawyer said he had suffered three strokes and a heart attack. But he appears to have lost none of his defiance.
Outside the court, a group of 25 women belonging to the "Mothers of Srebrenica" organization representing widows and victims of the Srebrenica massacre, held a demonstration.
"This is the biggest butcher of the Balkans and the world," Munira Subasic, 65, told Agence France-Presse. She lost 22 relatives to Bosnian Serb military forces when the enclave of Srebrenica was overrun in July 1995.
"I thought I would see at least some remorse in his eyes when I came here," Subasic said. "But instead I saw his bloodthirstiness. I don't know how he can live with what he did, with killing so many people."
"They let him walk free for 16 years," said pensioner Asim Dzemat. "The whole world let him kill us for years, and now they address him as 'Mr' Mladic, 'General' Mladic! What 'Mr'? He's a killer! It's so shameful."
But in Pale, the mountain stronghold from which Serb forces orchestrated the siege and bombardment of the capital 16 km away, applause broke out in cafes every time Mladic appeared on the television screens.
Mladic was in charge of the Bosnian Serb army when, over several days in July 1995, Serb fighters attacked the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia, theoretically under the protection of Dutch UN peacekeepers.
Prosecutor Dermot Groome, beginning a two-day opening statement, said Mladic and other Bosnian Serbs had been implementing a grand plan to eliminate non-Serbs from large areas of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia.
"Ratko Mladic assumed the mantle of the criminal goal of ethnically cleansing Bosnia," Groome told judges as the trial opened at the Yugoslav war crimes court in The Hague.
Groome displayed population maps showing the ethnic distribution in Bosnia before and after the war, explaining how mixed or predominantly Muslim municipalities became exclusively Serbian after a campaign of ethnic cleansing he said was one of Mladic's "strategic objectives".
The prosecutor said the very first objective was to "separate the Serbs from the other two national communities" -- Bosnians and Croats.
"Thousands of families were forced from their land," Groome added, as he told the court how groups of non-Serbs were executed and others forced to jump from a bridge by soldiers under Mladic's command.
The horrors of the Sarajevo siege and the Srebrenica massacre eventually galvanized world opinion in support of the campaign of Western air strikes on Bosnian Serb targets that brought the conflict to an end.
Mladic was indicted in 1995 along with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader, who is also on trial in The Hague. Yet both remained free in Serbia for more than a decade before being tracked down.
Mladic, who was arrested last May, has dismissed the charges as "monstrous" and says he is too ill to endure a trial that could last two years or more. By the end of the hearing he looked tired, and was given medication.
Some victims fear that time and failing health could help him avoid judgment like his mentor Slobodan Milosevic, the architect of the Balkan wars, who 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.
Defense lawyer Branko Lukic said that after three strokes - in 1996, 2008 and 2011 - and a heart attack that left him partly paralyzed on his right side, Mladic "will never be ok", but that his health had been improving thanks to treatment in detention.
The judges said on Wednesday that prosecutors had made "very significant errors" in disclosure of evidence, and that they would consider giving the defense more time.
Lukic told journalists on Wednesday that Mladic had had extensive medical and dental surgery since his capture.
"He lost a lot of teeth" during his years as a fugitive, Lukic said.
The trial was due to continue on Thursday, before resuming on May 29.
Mladic faces life imprisonment if found guilty. (Additional Reuters reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic and Maja Zuvela)