Ratko Mladic, a former Serb warlord who commanded forces that carried out some of the worst atrocities of the Balkan wars, has been found guilty of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

An international tribunal has sentenced Mladic, 74, to life in prison for his role in the bloodiest chapter of European history since World War II.

His conviction on 10 of 11 counts marks the last major prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which the UN Security Council set up more than two decades ago.

Former Bosnian military chief Ratko Mladic gives a thumbs up as he appears for the International Criminal Tribunal's verdict. Photo / Getty Images
Former Bosnian military chief Ratko Mladic gives a thumbs up as he appears for the International Criminal Tribunal's verdict. Photo / Getty Images

The verdict was hailed as a victory for justice, even if it was long delayed.

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"Mladic is the epitome of evil, and the prosecution of Mladic is the epitome of what international justice is all about," said UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein.

Mladic, whose attorneys had sought to block Wednesday's judgment on the grounds that he was too ill to attend trial, had been removed from the courtroom before the verdict was read after an angry outburst in which he shouted insults at the presiding judge, Alphons Orie. Mladic's attorneys said he will appeal the verdict, and continued to deny the charges.

Also at The Hague to witness the verdict were survivors, including those who had been held in concentration camps and mothers who lost their children during a merciless years-long military campaign against Bosnian Muslims that the court ruled amounted to an extermination attempt.

Survivors applauded and wept as the decision by the three-judge panel was read. Many said it represented a just punishment for a man dubbed the "Butcher of Bosnia".

Reading the verdict, Orie said Mladic's crimes "rank among the most heinous known to humankind". The judgment came after a trial that lasted more than four years, and involved testimony from nearly 600 witnesses.

They recounted a litany of horrors carried out by forces under Mladic's command during the war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, which claimed more than 100,000 lives. The atrocities included sniper attacks, indiscriminate shelling, mass executions, and imprisonment in camps where people died of malnourishment and disease.

Men watch a live broadcast of former Bosnian Serb military chief General Ratko Mladic's trial, sitting in a bar in Banja Luka, Bosnia. Photo / AP
Men watch a live broadcast of former Bosnian Serb military chief General Ratko Mladic's trial, sitting in a bar in Banja Luka, Bosnia. Photo / AP

Perhaps most horrific was the Mladic-directed July 1995 massacre of more than 7000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, a supposed UN safe haven. Mladic was also convicted of orchestrating the destruction of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, through a four-year siege punctuated by shelling and sniper fire.

"Burn their brains!" witnesses reported Mladic, a career military man, shouting as he watched his troops shell the city.

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Mladic, an ultranationalist, viewed the war as a chance for Serbs to avenge hundreds of years of occupation by Muslim Turks. Wednesday's judgment found that he persecuted Croats and Muslims with the intent to create "ethnically clean" territories.

"Circumstances were brutal," Orie said. "Those who tried to defend their homes were met with ruthless force. Mass executions occurred and some victims succumbed after being beaten. Many of the perpetrators who had captured Bosnian Muslims showed little or no respect for human life or dignity."

The prosecutions of Balkan war criminals are considered the most important war crimes cases in Europe since the Nuremberg trials of Nazis. Of the 161 people indicted by the tribunal on war crimes charges, none remain at large today.

In many cases, the perpetrators were tracked down after exhaustive international manhunts that extended for a decade or more. Mladic went into hiding in 1997, and was apprehended in 2011, when Serb police found him living in a cousin's village near the Romanian border.

Bosnian women are overwhelmed by emotion watching the final moments of former Bosnian Serb military chief Genernal. Photo / AP
Bosnian women are overwhelmed by emotion watching the final moments of former Bosnian Serb military chief Genernal. Photo / AP

The decision was praised by human rights advocates.

Amnesty International called the sentence a "landmark moment for justice".

The New York-based Physicians for Human Rights, which sent teams to exhume mass graves across the former Yugoslavia and supply crucial evidence to the tribunal, also cheered the decision.

"After more than two decades, today's verdict offers a measure of justice for all those who suffered from Mladic's unconscionable crimes," said Susannah Sirkin, the group's director of international policy and partnerships.

But the verdict was denounced by right-wing parties in Serbia, where nationalist sentiment has again been on the rise. The Serbian Radical Party, which won 8 per cent in elections last year, described Mladic as "a war hero".

"The verdict is political," party leader Vojislav Seselj said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, meanwhile, appealed for his countrymen to "not choke on tears over the past".

"My call to people in Serbia today is to start looking to the future," Vucic said.

Mladic's conviction follows that of the Serb political leader who took his country to war in Bosnia. Radovan Karadzic was convicted by the tribunal last year of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Although Mladic was cleared on one charge of genocide related to accusations of mass killings in several Bosnian municipalities, he was convicted of the charge as it related to Srebrenica.

The salt-mining town, which supposedly was under the protection of UN forces, became a byword for the inability of the international community to prevent ethnic cleansing.

Mladic handed out sweets and offered reassuring words to the town's Muslim children just hours before his forces executed thousands of men and boys there. Many of the victims were shot in the back of the head, their arms bound behind them.

Former Bosnian military chief Ratko Mladic appears for the pronouncement of the Trial Judgement for the International Criminal Tribunal. Photo / Getty Images
Former Bosnian military chief Ratko Mladic appears for the pronouncement of the Trial Judgement for the International Criminal Tribunal. Photo / Getty Images

In addition to genocide, Mladic was convicted on numerous other counts, including murder, deliberately causing terror, and taking UN personnel hostage. The judgment said his troops had raped Muslim women and girls, destroyed homes and mosques and deported civilians.

The war broke out in 1992 as the former Yugoslavia collapsed, and regions including Bosnia declared independence. Serb forces initially sought to defend Bosnian Serb territory, but soon spread violence across the country.

Mladic had looked relaxed as he entered the courtroom, smiling and flashing a thumbs-up. But after the judge rejected a request from his attorney for the session to be postponed because the defendant was suffering from high blood pressure, Mladic stood up and began shouting.

"You're lying," he said, as the suit-and-tie-clad former general was escorted from the courtroom.

Mladic then watched on television in an adjacent room as the judge announced his fate.