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Wednesday, 27 March, 2002, 22:39 GMT
Serbia signals move on war crimes
Serbian President Milan Milutinovic
Serbian President Milan Milutinovic is on the wanted list
The Serbian Government has defied the Yugoslav Constitutional Court by reinstating a decree that enables the country to extradite war crimes suspects.

The decision to re-adopt the statute came a day after the court, which is dominated by Serbian nationalists, annulled all previous decrees allowing co-operation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

The defiant move is being interpreted as a sign that Serbia is ready to arrest and hand over some of the 15 war crimes suspects living in the republic, who are wanted by the tribunal.

It comes just days before a 31 March deadline set by the United States, which has threatened to withdraw millions of dollars in financial assistance if Serbia failed to start co-operating.

Belgrade TV is carrying unofficial reports that arrests will take place within the next 24 hours.

Most wanted

But co-operation does not just mean surrendering war crimes suspects, says the BBC's Paul Anderson in Belgrade. It also requires the authorities to hand over files and archives relevant to investigations by the war crimes tribunal.

There has been months of public debate and political wrangling within the republic over the law.

President Vojislav Kostunica
President Kostunica has been highly critical of the tribunal
It was first adopted to enable the immediate extradition of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague, where he is currently standing trial.

The decision to extradite Mr Milosevic last June led to deep rifts within the Belgrade leadership. President Vojislav Kostunica made clear he saw the war crimes tribunal as a political institution, biased against the Serbs.

Among those wanted by The Hague are four senior Milosevic associates indicted with him, including the Serbian President Milan Milutinovic.

There are also three former and serving army commanders accused of slaughtering Croats who had been sheltering in a hospital in the besieged Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991.

But the best-known and most wanted suspect, former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, is generally considered safe, our correspondent says, because his arrest could be bloody and would be too dangerous politically.

See also:

19 Feb 02 | Europe
Kostunica attacks Milosevic trial
11 Feb 02 | Europe
Milosevic allies still at large
30 Aug 01 | Europe
Q&A: Milosevic trial
30 Aug 01 | Europe
Milosevic to face genocide charge
03 Aug 01 | Europe
War crimes: The ethnic balance
30 Jun 01 | Europe
The Hague's wanted men
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