ark John and Ingrid Melander
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union told Serbia on Monday it had a month to deliver war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic to justice or risk seeing its long-term bid to join the bloc put on ice.
One of the top two war crimes suspects in the Balkans, Mladic has been a wanted man since 1995 and is said to have enjoyed high-level protection from renegade members of the military and intelligence services in Serbia.
"It is high time Serbia reached full cooperation with ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) that should lead to the arrest and transfer of Ratko Mladic," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told a news conference.
"That is the way to avoid a disruption of negotiations, to avoid them being put on hold," Rehn said, noting complaints from ICTY chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte that Serbia's cooperation with her tribunal had been deteriorating over the past year.
Diplomats said a final statement by foreign ministers warned only that talks risked being "disrupted" rather than suspended so as not to encourage anti-EU figures in Belgrade who wanted just that outcome.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters the 25-nation EU would adopt a "go-slow" approach to future contacts with Belgrade, which could start with the cancellation of a next round of talks due on April 4-5.
"If Serbia continues to fail to cooperate, then it risks a total suspension of the talks," Straw said.
Del Ponte thanked the EU for sending what her spokeswoman called a clear message to Serbia: "If Mladic is not arrested Belgrade will have to face the consequences: the negotiations scheduled on April 5 will not take place, which means clearly that they will be suspended."
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic, in Brussels to meet his EU counterparts, was optimistic Mladic could be delivered.
"No explanations, no excuses for the fact that we are dramatically late in fulfilling our Hague obligations...I hope that we'll do that this time," he said, insisting nonetheless that his government did not know where Mladic was.
Indicted by the United Nations in 1995 for genocide in the massacre that year of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica and the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo, Mladic went underground only in 2001.
Responding to a week of rampant media speculation that Mladic was under arrest or about to surrender, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said last week that the former Bosnian Serb army chief was still at-large but insisted that Serbia was "doing everything in its power" to bring him to justice.
The current talks between the EU and Serbia are the first rung on the ladder to eventual membership for Belgrade -- something which is far from certain given the cold feet about future waves of enlargement in many EU capitals.
The EU will in coming weeks increase pressure on Belgrade, with Draskovic due to meet his EU counterparts later on Monday and again in mid-March.
Del Ponte has urged the EU to suspend its discussions with Belgrade, saying that similar hardline tactics worked with Croatia. The arrest of leading war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina in December cleared the path for its EU accession talks after months of warnings and pressure.