Serbia clears way for extradition of war crime suspects

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Serbia's Government formally adopted the United Nations war crimes tribunal's rules allowing the extradition of suspects yesterday, just ahead of a compliance deadline set by the United States that could have cost the country $120m (£80m) of financial assistance.

The Yugoslav President, Vojislav Kostunica, and his nationalist followers have opposed extraditions to the tribunal in The Hague, saying they are illegal, and demanded that a special domestic law be adopted to allow for the handing over of Serbia's suspects.

But the Serbian Justice Minister, Vladan Batic, said that after months of fruitless wrangling between political factions that favour or oppose such a domestic law, the Serbian government will "reinstate the decision on the automatic implementation of The Hague tribunal's statute".

The move came a day after Yugoslavia's constitutional court, dominated by the nationalists, ruled that The Hague's statute could not be applied in the country, Mr Batic said. The government's defiant move to reinstate the tribunal's statute despite the constitutional challenge indicates that it is ready to arrest and extradite at least some of the 15 Serb war crimes suspects living in the republic and sought by The Hague.

The US Congress had given Yugoslavia until Sunday to cooperate with the court or risk losing $120m financial assistance. A similar deadline was set last year before the arrest of the former president Slobodan Milosevic, who is now on trial in The Hague over atrocities his forces committed in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.

Mr Batic said he didn't think 31 March was "the final deadline because the Serbian government has fulfilled the other [two] conditions set by the American Congress", which included releasing all ethnic Albanian prisoners in Serbian jails and severing formal ties with the Bosnian Serb military.

Among the suspects sought by the tribunal are the former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his wartime military commander, Ratko Mladic. General Mladic is known to be in Serbia; Mr Karadzic's whereabouts are unknown.