BELGRADE, Nov 11 (Reuters) - The Hague war crimes tribunal turned up the heat on Serbia on Friday, telling it to deliver top fugitive Ratko Mladic by the end of this year or face "excommunication", Defence Minister Zoran Stankovic said.
The seven-week deadline to hand over the former Bosnian Serb military commander was issued on a visit to Belgrade by United Nations war crimes tribunal president Theodor Meron.
It tightens the screws on Serbia as it faces talks that could lead to the loss of Kosovo, the Albanian-dominated province which has been under U.N. control since 1999.
"Unless Mladic is in The Hague by a certain deadline, we will be excommunicated from Euro-Atlantic integration," Stankovic said after talks with Meron.
"If we do not fulfil this obligation by the end of this year, the citizens of this country will see some very difficult moments," the minister told Serbian state television.
Cooperation with The Hague is vital to Serbia's bids to join NATO and the European Union in the next decade, closing a 15-year chapter of war and sanctions following the breakup of former Yugoslavia.
Mladic and wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic are both indicted for genocide in the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of up to 8,000 Muslims in the town of Srebrenica during Bosnia's ethnic war.
The court's certification that Belgrade is sincerely committed to Mladic's arrest has in the past been central to EU and NATO assessment of its worthiness to progress in these membership bids, the country's top priority.
Meron told reporters after talks with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica that "the international community is truly impatient about the endless delays in the fulfilment by Serbia of its remaining international obligations."
"This is especially so regarding failure to deliver Ratko Mladic ... and the lack of visible and full support for efforts to capture and transfer Radovan Karadzic and other fugitives who are within reach of the authorities in Belgrade," Meron added.
NO ARMY RENEGADES, MINISTER SAYS
Meron's subsequent meeting with Stankovic was regarded as highly significant by Serbian media, raising speculation that a desperate effort may be under way to arrest Mladic.
Stankovic was once close to Mladic and his recent appointment was seen in Serbia as a sign that the government may be making serious efforts to bring him in.
Karadzic is believed to be hiding somewhere in Bosnia or his native Montenegro. Mladic is rumoured to be somewhere in Serbia, possibly being protected by renegade elements in the Serbian military or intelligence apparatus.
Stankovic said he had told Meron there was no evidence that hardline nationalist elements of the military were sheltering the general, as the Hague prosecutors suspect.
"If there is a part of the army that was hiding him, it would not be good news for us," Stankovic said.
"In fact, that would mean that we do not know what's going on in our army and that a part of our army had broken away, which is not true as far as we know and as far as we have checked the reports that they gave us."
Meron said Kostunica had assured him "in unequivocal terms, in fact he spoke of 100 percent commitment" that Serbia would abide by its obligations.
Serbia has delivered 13 suspects to The Hague in the past year, winning praise from the tribunal and major powers.
It got a break in the unrelenting pressure it has faced on the issue last month, when the EU decided to start talks with Belgrade leading to eventual membership, even though Mladic is still at large.
But the brief respite was never official, and on Friday Meron noted that the last handover was six months ago.
Now the major powers, at the same time as signalling to Serbia that Kosovo is lost, are pushing the Serbs to deliver one or both of the top two fugitives before the anniversary of the peace accord which ended the Bosnia war 10 years ago on Nov. 21.
Western powers intervened belatedly to stop the war after more than 200,000 people died.
The likelihood that Mladic and Karadzic may still not be behind bars before the 10th anniversary of the Dayton accords is seen as a further embarrassment for them.