Thursday, June 09, 2005

U.S. lifts its aid ban to Serbia, urges arrest of top war crimes fugitive

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - The United States on Thursday lifted its freeze on a US$10 million (euro8 million) aid package for Serbia-Montenegro, saying the Balkan country had shown better cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal.

But a U.S. State Department official visiting Belgrade urged authorities to arrest top fugitive Ratko Mladic -- a key demand by the European Union before any possible talks on joining the bloc. NATO also has demanded the capture as a prerequisite for closer ties.

Since October, the Serbian government has negotiated the surrender of about a dozen Serb war crimes suspects. However, former Bosnian Serb military commander Mladic, who is believed hiding in Serbia, and wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, believed to be in Bosnia, remain at large.

"Because of this progress ... the United States as of today is announcing the resumption of economic aid," U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said after holding talks with Serbian leaders at the end of a Balkan tour.

The U.S. Congress in January withheld US$10 million (euro8 million) in aid because of Serbia's failure to arrest and extradite several Serb suspects to the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Another US$16 million (euro13 million) was withheld last year for the same reason.

"It's our very strong hope that Mladic will be sent to The Hague and put on trial for war crimes he was accused of," Burns said. "We hope his days in relative freedom are numbered."

The U.N. tribunal indicted Mladic and Karadzic in 1995 for genocide and other war crimes, including the slaughter of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica -- the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

Burns said he believed the Serb government was working seriously to find Mladic, adding that "all the world is now focused on this question, and it's in part because of the July 11th anniversary" of the Srebrenica massacre.

Burns said he and Serb leaders also had discussed U.S. efforts for establishing Kosovo's future status. Ethnic Albanians leaders in the province have demanded independence, but Serb leaders insist Kosovo remain within Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced the disintegrated Yugoslavia.

The province has been administered by the United Nations since the 1999 NATO bombing stopped a crackdown against independence-seeking Kosovo Albanians.

"Six years after the war in Kosovo, the status quo is not sustainable," Burns said. "There must be change in 2005." He called for further decentralization of Kosovo's authority, and more effort to protect Serb, Turk and Roma minorities.

"All of them will have to be involved in the negotiations, and all of them will have to compromise," Burns said. "The people of Kosovo deserve to know what their future will be."

Burns also visited Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Pristina, Kosovo, during his Balkan tour.

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