Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Suspension of EU-Serbia talks virtually certain, EU official says

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - The EU will likely call off talks with Serbia on establishing closer ties, because Belgrade has failed to deliver fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladic to the U.N. war crimes tribunal, a top EU official said.

Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said he would consult Wednesday with Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, regarding Serbia's cooperation with the court.

"But the facts are clear enough -- we don't see Ratko Mladic in The Hague, and to our understanding there is no full cooperation with The Hague tribunal," Rehn told journalists on Tuesday after meeting with Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus.

"That means that we don't seem to have any other options than calling off the negotiations with Serbia on the Stabilization and Association Agreement," which is considered a first step toward membership in the bloc, Rehn said.

Mladic, the former commander of Serb forces during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, is believed to be hiding in Serbia under the protection of hardline military supporters.

The European Commission had given Belgrade an April 30 deadline to deliver Mladic as a precondition for resuming the talks with the EU on May 11.

There is a chance the talks could still continue, if Del Ponte reports that Belgrade is doing all that it can to hunt him down.

But a breakdown in the talks could isolate Serbia further from the rest of Europe and delay its integration into the EU.

It also would complicate Serbia's relations with the independence-seeking regions of Kosovo and Montenegro, both of which have used the issue to argue that Belgrade cannot meet the legal and other standards required for EU membership.

Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic, who is urging Montenegrins to vote for independence in a May 21 referendum, said Tuesday that the formal suspension of talks with the EU was "very realistic," and would "harm both Serbia and Montenegro." Speaking in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorice, he said his tiny state wanted independence "in order to bravely take its European future into its own hands."

Del Ponte on Tuesday expressed hope that the issue would be quickly resolved.

"Tomorrow we will see if they have found and arrested him, and we will take a position," Del Ponte said in Rome, according to the ANSA and Apcom news agencies.

The Serbian deputy premier in Brussels said a suspension in talks would jeopardize progress made so far on the stabilization agreement, and the possibility of it being completed by July. "If there is a suspension, the entire process will last much longer, and we don't know when it can be completed," Labus told reporters.

The EU used similar tactics last year to pressure Croatia to comply with the war crimes tribunal, freezing membership talks for more than six months until it received assurances from Del Ponte that Zagreb was working to find suspect Gen. Ante Gotovina. Those talks were restarted in October, and Gotovina was found and arrested in Spain's Canary Islands in December.

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