UN orders Serbia to hand over Mladic

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Serbia has been given a final warning that it must hand over the former general accused of masterminding the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World or jeopardise its hopes of closer links with the European Union.

The ultimatum was delivered yesterday by the chief prosecutor for the UN war crimes tribunal, Carla Del Ponte, who stepped up pressure for the extradition of suspects accused of genocide in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Failure to arrest Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb army commander thought to have orchestrated the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, is expected to lead to the suspension of key talks between Belgrade and the EU, scheduled for next week.

The stakes are also high for Ms Del Ponte, who has been criticised for her handling of the marathon trial of the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died in custody in The Hague last month before a verdict was delivered.

With no outcome to the Milosevic case, Ms Del Ponte has redoubled her efforts to secure two top suspects, who are accused of many of the same crimes: Mladic and his political master, Radovan Karadzic.

Just weeks before the death of Milosevic, speculation was rife that the arrest of Mladic was imminent and the authorities in Belgrade are believed to know his whereabouts.

The EU has given the Serbian government until 5 April to hand him over. If he remains at liberty by then the EU has promised to "disrupt" talks on a new trade deal - a Stabilisation and Association Agreement. The negotiation is seen as forerunner to talks on full EU membership.

The controversy over the death of Milosevic in The Hague has, however, reinforced hostility in Serbia to the UN tribunal, making the handover of war crimes suspects politically more difficult for Belgrade. Nationalists have threatened to topple the government of Vojislav Kostunica if Mladic and others are extradited to the UN court, which they consider anti-Serb. With the political temperature in Belgrade rising, officials have asked for more time to hand over Mladic, though the EU is unlikely to grant the request.

On Friday Ms Del Ponte will report to the European commissioner for enlargement, Olly Rehn, on whether the authorities in Belgrade are giving the tribunal full co-operation. If, as expected, her verdict is negative, the EU will scrap at least one meeting with Serbian officials due to take place in Belgrade on 5 April.

The Serbian government said it had been told that Ms Del Ponte's report to the European Commission would be based on "concrete measures" taken by the authorities to bring Mladic to justice. A statement from Belgrade said: "The suspension of the talks with the European Union would have far-reaching negative consequences for the political stability and democratic reforms in the country."

Ms Del Ponte, who met the Serbian President, Boris Tadic, and the Prime Minister, Mr Kostunica, refused to comment. Her spokeswoman, Florence Hartmann, said: "Today, we'll get an answer [from Serbian officials] whether Mladic will be in The Hague by 5 April, or not. If the answer is negative, the prosecutor will on Friday in Brussels demand the suspension of the talks."

Mladic is accused of genocide and other war crimes charges arising from the ethnic cleansing in the conflict between 1992 and 1995.

Earlier, Ms Del Ponte visited the military base of the EU peacekeeping force near Banja Luka, in northern Bosnia, underlining her calls for the arrest of Karadzic, who is believed to be hiding in the area. Both Karadzic and Mladic have been on the run for more than a decade.

Ms Del Ponte also met the Bosnian Serb Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, who said "the political will exists" within his cabinet to capture Karadzic, but added: "Whether that is [technically] possible is another question."

Last year Croatia's talks on EU membership were held up because of Zagreb's lack of co-operation over the arrest of the UN tribunal's third most wanted man, Ante Gotovina, a Croatian general indicted for war crimes. The negotiations began in October, several weeks before Gotovina's arrest in the Canary Islands.