PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - Montenegro's prime minister Thursday urged Serbia to capture U.N. war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic before a EU deadline, saying it would be good news for the entire Balkan region.
Milo Djukanovic, who advocates Montenegro's independence from a union with Serbia, also said that his tiny republic would move separately toward EU integration if its citizens vote in favor of the Serbia-Montenegro split at an upcoming referendum next month.
"By solving the state's status conditions will be created for Montenegro to move fast on the road to EU integration," Djukanovic said.
He added that Serbia -- which faces possible EU isolation if it does not hand over Mladic to the court in The Hague, Netherlands, by the end of April -- is crucial for stability of the Balkans and also should move closer to Europe.
"That is why it is very important for Serbia to end the deadlock in the process of European integration" by capturing Mladic as demanded by Brussels, Djukanovic said.
Serbia and Montenegro are the only two former Yugoslav republics that stayed together after the bloody breakup of the ex-Balkan federation in the early 1990s. Relations between the two have gradually worsened over the years, with Djukanovic pushing Montenegro towards independence from the Serbia-Montenegro union.
The May 21 independence referendum in Montenegro remains a potentially tense event because of the deep divisions among its 600,000 people over the issue.
Djukanovic in the past has accused Serbia of hampering Montenegro's EU efforts by failing to arrest Mladic and other Serb war crimes suspects sought by the Hague court, in connection with atrocities committed during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
The EU has set an end-of-April deadline for Serbia to hand over Mladic or face suspension of talks on establishing closer ties with the bloc.
Djukanovic said that Mladic's arrest would present "a sure sign that Serbia's state policies were taking a pro-European and democratic turn."
Djukanovic's government passed a declaration on Thursday pledging to continue the talks with the EU separately from Serbia, if Montenegro becomes an independent state after the May vote. The declaration also expressed readiness "to build Montenegro as a modern European country."
The run-up to the vote has been tense following brief arrests earlier this week by the authorities of several supporters of the union with Serbia, and the unionists' temporary walkout from a commission in charge of organizing the vote.