Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb ex-army commander has appeared at a war crimes tribunal in The Hauge, claiming the genocide charges against him are “obnoxious and “monstrous”.

Appearing over the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre, Mladic made his long-awaited first appearance before UN judge Alphons Orie today after nearly 16 years on the run from genocide charges.

The man dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” identified himself as “General Ratko Mladic” and answered questions about his health.

He told the court: “I am a gravely ill man”, before adding he needed more time to understand the charges and have a “proper defence”.

He claimed he had not read the 37-page indictment document, outlining genocide and crimes against humanity, that has been handed to him, nor three large binders of extra material outlining the crimes that he is alleged to have committed between 1992 and 1995 in the former Yugoslavia.

In a bizarre early exchange, he even disputed the court’s account of his date of birth, before going on to appear to smile when details of his alleged involvement in genocide in Srebrenica were outlined, and then shaking his head as he was accused of the mass killings of unarmed men and boys.

Mladic is facing 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity on the indictment.

Judge Alphons Orie told him: “According to the indictment you, Ratko Mladic, are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of law.”

Mladic said that he needed more than the standard 30 days to consider the “obnoxious charges levelled against me”, adding that the indictment was “monstrous words, which I have never heard before”. He said that he would not enter a plea today.

Following a brief adjournment, he insisted that he “defended my people and my country” during the Bosnian war, before saying: “I want to live to see that I am a free man … I am General Mladic and the whole world knows who I am.”

The hearing will resume on July 4 and Mladic will remain in custody at The Hague until then.

Mladic, 69, was arrested in north-east Serbia last Thursday. He is Europe’s most wanted man for atrocities committed during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people.

Mladic is accused of masterminding the Srebrenica massacre – Europe’s worst mass killing since World War II – and the 44-month siege of the capital Sarajevo from May 1992 in which 10,000 died.
“Mladic is a big criminal. He murdered my son, my husband, my two brothers,” said Kada Hotic, 69, a survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces.

Speaking outside the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, she added: “I hope that this court will really get the seriousness of this crime and judge in the name of justice and of victims.”

She and a handful of other family members of victims addressed journalists outside the court, holding a big photo of Mladic in war fatigues and the words: “Mass murderer”.

Mladic was flown to the Netherlands on Tuesday to stand trial before the ICTY after Serbian judges denied his appeal on health grounds and found him fit to stand trial.

On the eve of his much-anticipated appearance, however, Mladic’s lawyer Milos Saljic said his client was treated for cancer two years ago while evading justice. Court officials said a visit to the prison hospital last night was for “routine” tests.

The ex-general had also suffered three strokes and two heart attacks, the lawyer said, as the prosecution of the tribunal warned the trial would not start for months.

“It is a complex case, it will take time to prepare,” spokesman Frederick Swinnen said.

Mladic’s one-time mentor, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, died in The Hague four years into his own genocide trial in 2006, of a heart attack.