Serbia: Djindjic Under Pressure to Begin Extraditions

Serbia may try to extradite two of a long list of Hague indictees by the end of the month.

Serbia: Djindjic Under Pressure to Begin Extraditions

Serbia may try to extradite two of a long list of Hague indictees by the end of the month.

Belgrade is desperately trying to meet a US deadline for satisfying key conditions for the provision of American financial aid.

Serbia must extradite indicted Yugoslav nationals to The Hague and fulfil a number of other demands by March 31 or risk losing out on 150 million US dollars of assistance.

On Wednesday, the government issued an urgent decree, against the will of the federal authorities, giving itself the right to deport war crime suspects. A day earlier, 145 Albanian prisoners were released from Serbian jails, another US condition.

Realistically, Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic can now only extradite two of the 21 Yugoslav nationals the US wants the Serbian authorities to transfer to The Hague.

The arrests of Nikola Sainovic and Vlajko Stojiljkovic, former Yugoslav deputy prime minister and Serbian minister of police respectively, are expected any day.

Government sources in Serbia, where public hostility to The Hague tribunal is widespread and growing, believe the two arrests might be relatively painless, as the former officials have little public support.

Police sources said they attempted to arrest Sainovic last Saturday in Belgrade but were foiled when he failed to appear where they expected.

The Djindjic government fears that if it fails to meet the US deadline over extraditions, the country faces a return to the isolation of the Milosevic era.

Earlier this year, Belgrade satisfied one of the American conditions by halting financial aid to the Army of Republika Srpska. And while this week's moves will not have gone unnoticed in Washington, it's only likely to be satisfied once Serbia starts to cooperate fully with the tribunal.

Although the Serbian government is not unwilling to act, its resolve has been weakened by the opposition of the Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, and by an internal crisis triggered by the arrest on spying charges of the Serbian deputy prime minister, Momcilo Perisic.

Perisic was detained in mid-March on charges of spying for the US and the affair has gravely damaged the patriotic credentials of the Serbian authorities.

The government fears the extradition issue will loom large in forthcoming federal and possibly republican elections, when those supporting the transfer of war crimes suspects can expect to do badly.

Because the prospect of arrests is so unpalatable, Djindjic has spent the last six weeks vainly trying to persuade some of the indicted men to surrender themselves.

Sainovic refused outright - a stance confirmed by his political allies in Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS. Stojiljkovic was just as emphatic and left Belgrade last week. He has no intention to give himself up, Mirko Marjanovic, the SPS leader who replaced Milosevic confirmed.

Djindjic government sources say General Dragoljub Ojdanic, Milosevic's chief of staff in the 1999 war in Kosovo, is thinking about giving himself up. A week ago, police tried to enter a barracks on the outskirts of Belgrade where he was hiding but were stopped by sentries.

The same source said Milan Milutinovic, still President of Serbia in spite of being indicted over Kosovo, is also considering surrender.

The Serbian government has also made contact with the "Vukovar trio", indicted over the killing of several hundred Croats at Ovcara, near the eastern Croatia town, in 1991.

Of the three suspects, Captain Miroslav Radic is considering whether to go quietly, Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin, refused to even contemplate the idea, while General Mile Mrksic is said to be too ill to make a decision.

General Ratko Mladic, former head of the Bosnian Serb army, has also refused to discuss surrendering.

The crisis tearing apart the government may have given the indicted men the impression that Djindjic has no power to arrest and deport them.

President Kostunica has only made things worse, telling the Belgrade daily Politika last week that the deportations would lead to turmoil.

Although he says that the issue cannot be ducked, he has successfully washed his hands of it, placing the responsibility on Djindjic's shoulders.

On Wednesday Kostunica told Radio Television Serbia: "There must be cooperation with The Hague tribunal, but I have to admit that I feel sick to my stomach when I think about that court, with the horrific prejudices that are shown through its proceedings".

Djindjic, meanwhile, has warned that if Serbia refused its obligations, "the one who is advocating this should explicitly explain the price that people will pay for acting in such a manner. If Kostunica is that man, let him say so".

The government knows Washington will not accept a fudged result, especially since relations deteriorated after the first secretary at the US embassy in Belgrade, John Neighbor, was detained during the police swoop on Perisic.

At the beginning of April, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, will inform Congress of President George Bush's judgement on whether Serbia has met the conditions for American aid.

The arrest of Sainovic and Stojiljkovic may be enough to satisfy Washington, however it is not even clear whether their detention will go ahead.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor-in-chief of the Belgrade weekly Blic News.

Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia
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