Croatia's EU bid hampered by war crimes legacy

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The Independent Online

A reward of $5m (£3m) was offered for information on the whereabouts of a fugitive Croatian general yesterday, as Zagreb promoted co-operation over war crimes as the key to its bid for EU membership.

The US ambassador in charge of war crimes issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper, pledged the cash for help in arresting Ante Gotovina - the UN war crimes tribunal's third most wanted man.

General Gotovina is alleged to have arranged the killing of at least 150 Serb civilians and the expulsion of 150,000 others during an operation against the Krajina Serbs in 1995.

On a visit to Brussels, Ivica Racan, the Croatian prime minister, said all information received about the general was being checked, and that he was probably outside Croatia. He appealed to the EU not to make the issue an obstacle to Croatia's membership bid.

Croatia's economy is stronger than that of several countries that will join the EU next year, but the country is still scarred by the wars of the 1990s and the nationalism of former president Franjo Tudjman, who died in 1999. Zagreb applied for full EU membership in February, hoping to start formal talks next year, with a view to joining in 2007 or 2008.

But, while Croatia is making significant progress in returning refugees to their former homes, the most difficult legacy of the Balkan wars remains the war crimes issue.

The fate of General Gotovina is the biggest obstacle to EU accession negotiations. Mr Racan appealed for understanding, saying the arrest of the general is outside his control. "I welcome Croatia being criticised for failing to do something it is able to do," he said. "But should Croatia be punished for something it wants to do but is not able to do?"

Mr Racan's argument is unlikely to satisfy those countries within the EU, including the UK and the Netherlands, which do not think Zagreb has cooperated enough with the UN tribunal.

Both Mr Prosper and Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor at the UN tribunal, believe the general is still in Croatia, where he is widely seen as a hero, rather than a war criminal.

Croatia has improved its cooperation with The Hague on providing documents, and another wanted ex-general - Janko Bobetko - died before being extradited.

But Ms Del Ponte, who was due to speak to the UN Security Council on the issue last night, is still not satisfied with Croatia's efforts; and Britain and the Netherlands have held up the full application of a 2001 agreement that grants Croatia greater access to EU markets because of shortcomings in its cooperation with the tribunal.

Denis MacShane, Britain's minister for Europe, said that, for Croatia, "the road to Brussels leads through The Hague".