WASHINGTON, Oct 7 (Reuters) - The United States renewed pressure on Friday on Serbia to hand over top war crimes fugitives to a U.N. tribunal, in contrast with a softening EU stance.
Nicholas Burns, the No. 3 official at the State Department, said he would visit Belgrade next week to demand Serbia capture ex-Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic and wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic.
Defiance would keep Serbia excluded from NATO and could prompt the United States to again suspend aid to Serbia, which it resumed this year after Belgrade handed over lower-profile fugitives, Burns said.
Burns' pressure comes despite an EU move last month to back opening talks with Belgrade on its eventual membership in the wealthy bloc that had long been held up due to the fugitives.
The two men are indicted for genocide in the 1992-95 Bosnian war including the massacre 10 years ago of up to 8,000 Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
"It's a lack of political will on the part of the Belgrade authorities," Burns told reporters. "It does not stand to reason that these people cannot be found."
"They ought to be able to do this and until they do this they will not have a normal relationship with the United States," he added.
As part of NATO, the United States went to war with the former Yugoslavia in 1999.
Criticized for neglecting the Balkans, this year the Bush administration has refocused on the region with Burns leading the diplomacy.
SHIFT FOR KOSOVO
He also said the United States would continue to block Croatia's efforts to join NATO until the capture of fugitive Ante Gotovina, who commanded a blitz offensive to recapture the Krajina region from breakaway Serb forces in August 1995.
He acknowledged a difference over Croatia with the European Union, which has begun talks on Zagreb's entry into the block after the government improved cooperation with the tribunal in The Hague.
European powers have shifted their diplomacy in ex-Yugoslavia away from the fugitives and onto what they consider the urgent need for a solution in Kosovo, the U.N.-run Serbian province whose Albanian majority demands independence.
Brussels hopes the promise of a common EU roof for all the Balkan states can smooth what are expected to be very difficult talks starting next month and cement stability in a region that saw 250,000 die in three wars in the 1990s.
While Burns said it was unsustainable to keep a decision on Kosovo's future status on hold, he was not prepared to cede ground on the fugitives.
Serbian leaders led him to believe in June on his previous trip that Mladic's capture was imminent but he was "severely disappointed" there had been no progress, he said.
Intensifying the pressure, he set an informal deadline for the capture, noting it would be symbolic if they were handed over before the Nov. 21 10th anniversary of the Dayton accords, which ended the Bosnian war.