Monday, July 17, 2006

EU hails Serbian plan to arrest war criminals, but pre-membership talks remain suspended

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - The European Union on Monday hailed Serbia's new plan to track down and arrest fugitive war crimes suspect Gen. Ratko Mladic, but stopped short of committing itself to resume crucial pre-membership negotiations suspended in May.

"For us the action plan provides a very good basis for our further work and cooperation," said Finland's Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomoija, whose country now holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Earlier in the evening, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica briefed EU leaders on the contents of the so-called Action Plan. Although no details of the three-page document were released, officials said it details measures to apprehend Mladic, who is wanted on charges of involvement in genocide during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

"Obviously the plan is still to be developed further, but effective implementation of the action plan can and must begin immediately," Tuomoija told journalists at a joint news conference.

"This is now opening the way for the full cooperation with (the U.N. court), that the negotiations on a Stabilization and Association Agreement that we started with Serbia can be resumed and thus facilitates Serbia's way toward the European Union," he said.

But Tuomoija refrained from setting a firm date or making a specific commitment to restart the talks before Mladic is actually delivered to the court in The Hague.

Belgrade has been hoping the grouping will accept its assurances and restart negotiations even if Mladic remains at large.

Both EU and Serbian government officials have warned that Serbia's continued isolation could radicalize the electorate and result in a victory for a far-right party opposed to cooperation with the EU in next year's general elections.

An agreement on association with the EU is seen as a way of kick-starting economic reforms and avoiding defeat in the upcoming ballot.

"We should be more than optimistic," Kostunica said. "The action plan will enable firm cooperation with the (U.N. court) and will enable us to continue pre-accession talks with the EU."

He pointed out that Belgrade had extradited 16 indicted war criminals to the international court in the past year, and vowed to continue "transparent and full" cooperation with international prosecutors.

Kostunica's visit to Brussels is part of a major diplomatic offensive mounted to persuade the EU and the United States to lift the partial international isolation that has dealt a major blow to Kostunica's efforts at reform, following years of economic sanctions under ex-President Slobodan Milosevic.

On Tuesday, Serbian President Boris Tadic will follow Kostunica to Brussels, where he will meet top EU and NATO officials. Last week, Kostunica visited Washington and held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

EU officials also have acknowledged that a victory for the far-right Radical Party -- already the most popular in Serbia -- in next year's elections could roll back much of the work done to stabilize the western Balkans following Yugoslavia's bloody breakup.

One of the issues the Radical Party has been capitalizing on are the talks on the future status of Kosovo, conducted in Vienna under former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. They have threatened to declare Serbia's province of Kosovo -- which has been under U.N. administration and patrolled by NATO peacekeepers since 1999 -- an "occupied region."

On Monday, EU foreign ministers welcomed Ahtisaari's intention to move forward into direct political talks on the final status issue. Many see the political talks as the first move toward recognizing Kosovo, considered by Serbs as their nation's historical heartland, as an independent nation.

No comments: