Ashdown sacks Bosnia's top Croat over corruption charges

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The Independent Online

Bosnia's international administrator, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, has used his sweeping powers to fire the Croat member of the country's three-person presidency as a corruption case causes increasing difficulties.

Bosnia's international administrator, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, has used his sweeping powers to fire the Croat member of the country's three-person presidency as a corruption case causes increasing difficulties.

After almost three weeks of pressure failed to persuade Dragan Covic to resign voluntarily, Lord Ashdown forced him out of the job, saying the allegations had made it impossible for him to continue in office.

The crisis came to a head after the European Union,the United States and other international partners called on Mr Covic to stand down while contesting the case in order that the credibility of Bosnia's political institutions be protected.

In a statement yesterday Lord Ashdown described Mr Covic as, by and large, a "good President", but said it was vital to maintain a principle that anyone indicted on criminal offences resigns "so as not to damage the public office they hold".

He added: "To have a member of the presidency - the body which is in charge of foreign policy - with whom BiH's main international partners will not have contact, could do real and lasting damage to BiH's immediate and long-term future." [BiH is the local acronym for Bosnia & Herzegovina.] Officials feared that Mr Covic's refusal to quit would have dealt a lethal blow to Bosnia's chances of joining Nato's Partnership for Peace programme and would have threatened negotiations over an aid-and-trade deal with the EU.

Mr Covic, a member of the nationalist HDZ party, has enjoyed a high profile. He was due to take up the rotating chairmanship of the tripartite Bosnian presidency - which represents Bosnian Serbs and Croats and Muslim Bosniaks - in June.

The alleged offences were carried out between 2000 and 2003, while Mr Covic was deputy prime minister of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation. He denies a formal accusation which centres on allegations that he bribed the head of the Constitutional Court.

Yesterday's decision underlines the scale of the task of rebuilding democratic institutions in Bosnia and of ridding the economically depressed country of corruption and organised crime. The EU took over peace-keeping in Bosnia last year and, with sectarian tensions under control, has switched some of its focus onto combating criminal gangs which have links to the top of the political establishment.

Lord Ashdown, seen as an energetic international representative of both the United Nations and the EU, is due to stand down at the end of the year.

Yesterday Mr Covic said the decision to fire him was unconstitutional, but he had no alternative but to bow to the ruling. It is, however, unlikely to mark the end of his role in public life as he will not be barred from party office and may run for the presidency of the HDZ.

Since 1998, around 150 officials have lost their jobs and Lord Ashdown has shown himself willing to use his powers, sacking 59 people last June and a further nine in December.

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