Surrender deadline ignored by 17 Serb war crimes suspects

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The Independent Online

Six of the 23 Serb war crimes suspects have decided to surrender to the international tribunal ahead of a deadline for their voluntary handover, the Yugoslav Justice Ministry announced yesterday.

The 17 other suspects indicted by the UN court in The Hague, including the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his aide, General Ratko Mladic, who are wanted on genocide charges, face arrest.

Speaking in London after talks with Tony Blair, Zoran Djindjic, the pro-reform Prime Minister of Serbia, promised that "most of them on the list" would be handed over. Downing Street said the Prime Minister was encouraged by his discussions with Mr Djindjic.

Some of the suspects are expected to be transferred to The Hague in the next two or three days, after the decision by Yugoslavia, where nationalist propaganda has presented the court as anti-Serb and Nato-controlled. The Monday deadline set by the Yugoslav authorities was met by two former officials who share the 1999 Kosovo war crimes indictment with Slobodan Milosevic. They were his chief of staff, General Dragoljub Ojdanic, and his close aide Nikola Sainovic. General Ojdanic is expected to go to the Netherlands later this week.

The others will surrender to the tribunal's office in Belgrade, which will deal with the formalities of their transfer within two weeks.

The others in the group include three suspects for war crimes in Croatia and one for crimes in Bosnia. Milan Martic, a former leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia, is accused of killing civilians in two cluster bomb attacks on Zagreb in 1995. Retired General Mile Mrksic and Captain Vladimir Kovacevic are accused of war crimes in the Croatian cities of Vukovar and Dubrovnik in 1991.

The sixth suspect is a Bosnian Serb, Momcilo Gruban, who is accused of war crimes against non-Serbs in the notorious Omarska camp in 1992.

The Yugoslav Parliament agreed to co-operate with the tribunal after Western governments threatened to cut badly needed financial aid.

Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav President, a nationalist and staunch opponent of the UN tribunal, said no one should "gloat" over the voluntary surrenders. They were due to "international obligations which cannot be avoided".

The remaining 17 suspects are under the jurisdiction of the District Court of Belgrade from today. Their whereabouts are known to the local authorities, who declined to say whether Mr Karadzic and General Mladic were in Yugoslavia.

Mr Djindjic said on BBC radio yesterday: "There are rumours Mladic was in Belgrade months ago ... but we don't have any evidence and it is very difficult to act." He said there were some problems detaining suspects but the government was doing its best.