REGIONAL REPORT: Net Tightens Around Serb Indictees

President Kostunica is boxed into a corner over his opposition to The Hague

REGIONAL REPORT: Net Tightens Around Serb Indictees

President Kostunica is boxed into a corner over his opposition to The Hague

Pressure for the immediate extradition of war crimes suspects to The Hague looks set to overwhelm the federal authorities in Belgrade. Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica stands isolated in his opposition to the tribunal and is now hemmed in by international demands and the policies of his chief rival, Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic.

On December 12, the Serbian authorities made clear their plans to make further extraditions in the coming year, with statements in that respect made by Djindjic and foreign minister Goran Svilanovic.

Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic told reporters, "The decision we made regarding Milosevic is not limited to his case. The Serbian government will enforce the statute of the Hague tribunal."

On December 8, French president Jacques Chirac, after meeting Kostunica, said he expected the Yugoslav authorities full cooperation with the tribunal. The Yugoslav president is faced with demands for the immediate extradition of 15 military officers.

The wanted men come from the ranks of the former Yugoslav People's Army, JNA, the Yugoslav Army, VJ, and the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska, VRS.

Top of the list is General Ratko Mladic, the VRS wartime commander charged with genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia. Then there's the Vukovar trio - General Mile Mrksic, Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin and Captain Miroslav Radic - all former JNA officers charged with the murder of 261 Croats at the Ovcara farm near Vukovar in 1991.

Also wanted are General Dragoljub Ojdanic, Milosevic's defence minister, indicted for war crimes in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999; Admiral Milan Zec and Captain Radovan "Rambo" Kovacevic, two of the four former JNA officers charged with bombing Dubrovnik in 1991. The other two Dubrovnik suspects, Admir Jokic and General Strugar, surrendered to the tribunal in November.

In addition, there are seven VRS officers, known to be residing in Yugoslavia, and named in sealed indictments which tribunal chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte handed to the Serbian authorities in September. These seven are thought to be the so-called "Knin Group", which was subordinate to Mladic during the Srebrenica massacres in 1995.

Finally, there is VRS general, Dragomir Milosevic, indicted for his role in the siege and bombing of Sarajevo from 1992-1995. His successor, General Stanislav Galic, is already on trial at The Hague.

On November 27, Del Ponte launched a stinging attack on Kostunica. In a report to the United Nations Security Council, she accused the federal authorities of trying to hinder the efforts of Djindjic's government to cooperate with The Hague.

"We need access to documents, archives and witnesses," said Del Ponte. "However, at the federal level in Belgrade, we are being denied access to this kind of evidence with an explanation that there is no legal basis for something like that."

Del Ponte reiterated these complaints to Chirac before he made his trip to Belgrade.

She claimed Mladic was living in Yugoslavia under the "official protection" of the Yugoslav army. The Vukovar trio, she said, were also being sheltered from domestic and international justice.

An anonymous source close to the Serbian government told the Reuters news agency recently that Mladic was guarded by 80 soldiers at an army facility in Serbia.

But an IWPR source said Mladic lives sometimes in Blagoja Parovica street in Belgrade and is protected by the same security men he used when serving as VRS commander. He said Mladic often leaves Belgrade for a few weeks at a time, but he did not know where he traveled to.

News of the other 14 wanted men is muddled. Rumours abound that at least two of the Vukovar three - Mrksic and Radic - have already been arrested by Serbian police. There has been no confirmation and the whereabouts of the two men in unknown.

The third Vukovar indictee, Sljivancanin, is keeping a low profile nowadays. He remained on active service until very recently, working in the general staff building. Until his enforced retirement in October, he had enjoyed making public appearances.

In late August, Sljivancanin published a book entitled "This is my Homeland" about his experiences in the Vukovar campaign. He denied all responsibility for any crimes and has said on several occasions he will not surrender to The Hague. He told Blic he carried a hand grenade at all times in case an arrest attempt was made.

After Sljivancanin's book launch, which was attended by several senior VJ officers, Djindjic complained to Kostunica that Sljivancanin was "damaging the credibility of the country". Following a request from Kostunica, VJ chief-of-staff General Nebojsa Pavkovic sent Sljivancanin into retirement and his public appearances ceased.

On December 12, faced with mounting international pressure for action against the military indictees, Kostunica said he understood that he would have to act, despite his legal objections to the tribunal.

Kostunica has stated the number one obstacle to extradition is the absence of a law on cooperation with The Hague. A federal level measure was blocked by the constitutional court in October. Kostunica may have to push hard for the legislation, even if it is only adopted in Serbia.

If Kostunica continues to block the extradition of indicted soldiers, he risks losing international credibility. Hence, despite intense resistance from within the ranks of the VJ, the Yugoslav president has little option but to hand the wanted men over.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is an editor for the Belgrade weekly BlicNews magazine. He is also a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network.

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