RATKO Mladic made his first appearance before a UN court in The Hague today, after 16 years on the run from genocide and war crimes charges.

The wartime Bosnian Serb army chief, dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia”, appeared before judge Alphons Orie wearing a grey suit and gold and black and gold tie.

“I am General Ratko Mladic,” he told the court. “I am a gravely ill man.

“I was in such a poor state,” he added, describing his arrival at the tribunal’s detention unit in The Hague last Tuesday.

But he insisted he did not need help to move around after court guards offered to take his arm and guide him to the dock.

“I am General Mladic and the whole world knows who I am,” he said. “I don’t want to be taken by the arm like I am a blind man. I can walk by myself.”

For long Europe’s most wanted man for atrocities committed during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people, Mladic was arrested in northeast Serbia a week ago.

The 69-year-old is accused of masterminding the Srebrenica massacre of 8000 muslim men and boys – 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 insisted he was “just defending my country”.

“I defended my people and my country, not Ratko Mladic,” he said after saluting judges with his left hand. “I did not kill Croats as Croats, I was just defending my country.”

He was flown to the Netherlands last Tuesday to stand trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) after Serbian judges denied his appeal on health grounds and found him fit to stand trial.

“The purpose of the hearing is to inform you of the charges against you and to ask for your entry of a plea, as well as to verify that your right to counsel is respected,” judge Alphons Orie said today, adding: “It will take some time before the trial itself will start.”

The judge also advised Mladic of his right to remain silent.

On the eve of the long-awaited first appearance, Mladic’s lawyer Milos Saljic said that his client was treated for cancer two years ago while evading genocide charges.

The ex-general had also suffered three strokes and two heart attacks, the lawyer said.

The trial is not expected to start for months, and should last several years.

After his rights were read to him today, Mladic told the judge: “I need a bit more time to think about all the things.”

He added: “I need at least two months to read those binders (provided by the prosecution), if not more.”

Mladic refused to enter a plea and denounced the “obnoxious” charges against him.

Mladic will appear again before the UN court on July 4, when he will be required to enter a plea to genocide and war crimes charges, a judge said today.

The tribunal had to rent extra space at a conference centre across the road to handle the expected overflow of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the ex-general in the dock.