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REGIONAL REPORT: Zagreb Exploits Del Ponte Visit

Prime Minister Ivica Racan seeks to cash in on Carla Del Ponte's trip to Croatia.
By Dragutin Hedl

The Croatian authorities are trying to present the tribunal chief prosecutor's latest visit as a triumph for the country by downplaying some of the court's key demands.

Carla Del Ponte toured Croatia earlier this month, offering its premier Ivica Racan some incentives to step up his cooperation with the tribunal.

She pleased the authorities by announcing the tribunal would allow the country's judiciary to prosecute "lesser" war criminals investigated by The Hague, but at the same time warned that the tribunal would be delivering fresh indictments to Zagreb later in the year.

Racan was quick to publicise the tribunal's decision allowing local trials, but sought to downplay the part it will have to play in the extradition of new suspects.

By doing so, he is hoping to overcome hostility from many Croats, including high-ranking members of his own government, who oppose any association with The Hague.

So far, Zagreb has managed to present the trip as a success, particularly as Del Ponte toured towns and areas where Croats suffered atrocities at the hands of Serb forces.

Her trip included visits to Erdut, which was a former paramilitary training camp run by Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan" and the mass grave at Ovcare, close to Vukovar. She met and spoke with a number of witnesses to alleged crimes and said the experience would "inspire" her work.

While in Vukovar, devastated by Serb forces in the early Nineties, she announced The Hague might be willing to hand over to Zagreb documentation on minor alleged war criminals.

The tribunal's strategy is attempting to speed up prosecutions so that it is able to wind up its work by 2008, but it will also bolster Racan's chances of overcoming his opponents who say that the Hague court is anti-Croat.

He believes that if Croatia was allowed to prosecute certain alleged war criminals, it would reflect international trust in the Zagreb leadership, and should avert a repeat of the sort of protests that have in the past followed news of Hague extraditions.

Racan also hopes that Del Ponte will begin indicting those named on Milosevic's Croatia charge sheet before he's asked to extradite more Croats. These include members of the former Yugoslavia's presidency, namely Borisav Jovic and Branko Kostic; top-ranking ex-Yugoslav army officers Veljko Kadijevic and Blagoje Adzic; and Krajina officials Milan Babic and Goran Hadzic. This will give him considerable leverage at home as it would go some way to overcoming a Croat perception that the tribunal is soft on Serb war crimes suspects.

The prime minister and Croatian public will have been heartened by Del Ponte's visit to Vukovar, where she said she was keen to prosecute three former Yugoslav army officers - General Mile Mrksic, Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin and Captain Miroslav Radic - suspected of responsibility for a massacre close to the town.

Mrksic is already in custody in The Hague and she said she expected Sljivancanin and Radic at The Hague "soon".

The Zagreb authorities, meanwhile, have been trying to downplay the prospect of fresh war crimes charges against Croats. News of previous indictments for generals Ante Gotovina and Rahim Ademi had threatened to bring down the ruling coalition, which is dangerously split on the issue of cooperation with The Hague.

As such, Racan's government has launched a media campaign publicising The Hague's decision to devolve some minor prosecutions to Croatia, and has sought to sideline the issue of future indictments.

Local trials would ensure a degree of stability for Racan's government since it would go some way to assuaging those who view the extradition as treachery.

The arrest of General Mirko Norac, indicted for crimes committed against Serbs in Gospic in 1991, brought 150,000 protesters on to streets in Split in February of last year. But when his trial went ahead locally, opposition decreased markedly.

Del Ponte's visit appears to have struck the right note. "We are extremely satisfied with everything she said in Croatia," one retired government official told IWPR, although he mirrored Racan's concerns that no new indictments against Croats should be issued until the so-called Vukovar Troika are extradited along with Milan Martic, charged with shelling Zagreb in May 1995. As IWPR went to press, Martic was reported to be on his way to The Hague.

As Racan makes the most of The Hague concessions, he must know that they could be withdrawn if the Croatian judiciary proves sluggish or incompetent over local trials or he procrastinates over acting on new indictments.

Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR's contributor.

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