WASHINGTON, Oct 7 (AFP) -
The United States issued a tough warning to Serbia and Croatia Friday saying that it would block their bid to join NATO and threatening financial sanctions unless indicted war crimes suspects are handed over.
"It is high time that these war criminals be brought to justice," Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told reporters ahead of a three-day trip to the region next week.
He was referring to Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic as well as Radovan Karadzic, the former political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and Croatian general Ante Gotovina. All three fugitives are wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for atrocities committed during the 1991-95 war in the Balkans.
"It does not stand up to argue that somehow in that very small country (Serbia), the Serb authorities cannot find General Mladic or Radovan Karadzic," Burns said.
"Until they bring them to justice they will not have a normal relationship with the United States and they will not have a partnership relationship, much less membership, in the future, with NATO," he added.
He said Washington would also block Croatia's bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization until Gotovina was handed over to The Hague.
"Somebody has to stand up for the families of the victims of 10 years ago," he said.
Burns noted that unless clear progress was made by Belgrade and Zagreb in handing over war crimes suspects, Washington would also "draw the necessary conclusions" when it came to considering financial aid.
"I can tell you we will have a very tough-minded view of this," he said. "We have to judge countries by their actions, not by their words, so we will draw the necessary conclusions."
Mladic and Karadzic are the international war crimes tribunal's most wanted fugitives. They stand accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, notably over the killing of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys at the Bosnian town of Srebrenica -- the worst single atrocity in Europe since World War II.
Gotovina for his part is accused of the murder of at least 150 ethnic Serb civilians during the independence war that pitted Zagreb forces against secessionist Serbs.
Burns said he was disappointed by the fact that when he last visited the region in June he was led to believe by the Serb leadership in Belgrade that Mladic was about to be arrested.
"We were given a very clear view that action was imminent," he said, adding that one of the reasons he was travelling to Belgrade was to have an explanation "face to face".
Burns is due to arrive in Sarajevo next Wednesday before heading to the mainly ethnic Albanian Serb province of Kosovo and finally stopping in Belgrade on Friday.
He said Washington fully backed the UN decision to push for talks on the future status of Kosovo to begin soon and planned to appoint a special envoy to assist in those talks.
"The status quo (in Kosovo) cannot be tolerated any longer, we've got to move on," he said.
Burns said he planned to invite Balkan leaders to travel to Washington in November to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in the Balkan and to discuss bilateral relations as well as the future status of Kosovo.