Thursday, March 24, 2005

Former Serbian army chief refuses to surrender to U.N. war crimes tribunal

Serbia's former army chief, indicted for war crimes in Kosovo in 1999, refuses to voluntarily surrender to a U.N. tribunal and will resist arrest if authorities move against him, his allies said Thursday.

Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, who is president of the Peoples' Bloc party, "is not considering his surrender because he is ill and is protecting his military honor and dignity," the party said in a statement.

It added that the group's members and other nationalist allies will form a "human shield" in front of his home if police try to arrest him.

Serbia's government, which is under international pressure to hand over Serb war crimes suspects to The Hague tribunal, has announced it plans to arrest Pavkovic if he does not surrender voluntarily by the end of March when the European Union is to issue a report on whether the Balkan country can eventually start membership talks.

Also Thursday, the office of Serbia's prosecutor for war crimes announced that it has ordered that all bank accounts of suspects indicted by The Hague tribunal be frozen. The office did not provide names or details about the banks or amounts affected by the move.

Pavkovic was in charge of the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo in 1999 during NATO airstrikes that stopped a crackdown against independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. Tens of thousands Kosovo Albanians fled their homes during the army offensive and up to 10,000 people were killed.

Pavkovic was promoted to the army chief of staff after the war in Kosovo by former President Slobodan Milosevic. In 2003, the Hague court indicted Pavkovic along with three other top Serb generals for crimes against humanity and violations of the customs of war.

"Pavkovic was and remained a Serb hero who has fought for dignity and national freedom," Rodoljub Stanimirovic, the vice president of Pavkovic's party, told the Gradjanski List newspaper.

Ten Serb and Bosnian Serb suspects, indicted by The Hague tribunal for war crimes during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, have voluntarily surrendered to the court since October. But more than a dozen Serb indictees remain at large. The two top fugitives are Gen. Ratko Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

Serbia's conservative-led government, fearing political backlash by nationalists, has been reluctant to arrest and extradite the suspects, preferring to persuade the to surrender. But, deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said that Pavkovic will be arrested if he does not give himself up.

"This is no longer a question of cooperation with The Hague Tribunal. It is a question of whether a single individual, regardless of whom he might be, can defy the government. And I think the answer to that question is clear," Labus said.

Pavkovic's allies claim he is "seriously ill" and that he is recuperating at an undisclosed location in Serbia. Until the recent wave of voluntary surrenders, Pavkovic had been living openly in Belgrade.

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