BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has sent a powerful signal to would-be members in the Balkans by postponing entry talks with Croatia to punish its failure to arrest a top war crimes suspect seen by many Croats as a hero.
Foreign ministers set no new date for the talks, due to have begun on Thursday, saying they would begin "as soon as the (EU) Council has established that Croatia is cooperating fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia".
"In the absence of a common agreement, the opening of accession negotiations is postponed," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn announced at a news conference on Wednesday.
It is the first time the bloc has called off talks with a candidate over an issue involving human rights and the rule of law, setting a precedent not only for Western Balkan states but also for EU aspirant Turkey, due to open negotiations on October 3.
U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte has told the EU in a series of letters that Zagreb has not done enough to hand over fugitive General Ante Gotovina and has failed to report recent approaches by his supporters seeking a trial in Croatia.
"The demand is that there has to be full cooperation with the Hague tribunal for the talks to start," Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds told reporters.
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader voiced dismay at the EU decision and insisted his country had done its best.
"I cannot but express my dissatisfaction with this decision of the (Council) today. Croatia deserves negotiations as soon as possible," he told the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, vowing to continue work to meet EU standards.
As an incentive to Zagreb, ministers approved a negotiating framework for the talks once they eventually open.
"This means we are ready when Croatia is," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.
Gotovina, a former French legionnaire, has been on the run since he was indicted in 2001 for crimes against humanity during a 1995 offensive to recapture a rebel Croatian Serb enclave.
The Hague tribunal has charged him over the murder of at least 150 Serbs, and plunder and destruction of their property.
Ministers stressed the political message to other aspirants.
"If we want Serbia to come into line, then our position towards Croatia has to be very clear, otherwise we also lose our leverage vis-a-vis Serbia," said Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht.
Belgrade is under pressure to deliver the two most wanted war crimes suspects -- former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic.
Croatian political analyst Zeljko Trkanjec told Reuters: "The delay is a clear message to the region -- no handovers, no talks. Also, it is a message to Croatia -- you must move faster, more actively. If you cannot achieve this, how will you implement EU laws and decisions?"
In a letter delivered to EU president Luxembourg on Tuesday, del Ponte said she still considered Zagreb had not tried hard enough to catch Gotovina despite intensified last-minute steps.
"The additional information (provided by Croatia) does not modify my assessment of Croatia's cooperation with my office," she wrote.
Opening talks requires a unanimous decision by member states even when the EU has already set a date for negotiations, as is the case with Croatia and Turkey.
Diplomats said a majority opposed making a start until Gotovina was in custody.
Only seven EU states -- Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Malta, Ireland, Lithuania and Cyprus -- favoured starting talks now. A larger group including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Nordic states opposed it.
EU diplomats said no member state had sought to link the Croatian case with Turkey's, but the clear message to Ankara was that it should fulfil all the undertakings it made to the EU last year to ensure it could begin on time.
These include bringing into force several packages of human rights and legal reforms and extending its EU customs union to cover the 10 new member states, including Cyprus.