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Friday, 27 September, 2002, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
Croatia debates extradition crisis
Bobetko (r) with former Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman, in 1995
Bobetko (r) ran the army for much of the Croatian war
The Croatian parliament has begun a debate on the crisis caused by the indictment of an 83-year-old general by the international war crimes tribunal.


Unfortunately, the indictment... could have a destabilising effect

Foreign Minister Tonino Picula
Ministers are challenging the indictment, fearing that handing over a man considered by many Croatians as a war hero could bring down the government.

However, by doing so they risk triggering sanctions from the international community that would slow down Croatia's integration with the EU and other international bodies.

Addressing deputies, Deputy Prime Minister Goran Granic repeated the government's view that the indictment violated the constitution.

"When the government received the indictment against Bobetko we established that there is a serious doubt in its constitutionality," he said.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Tonino Picula told Western diplomats that the indictment against General Janko Bobetko "could have a destabilising effect on Croatia and possibly on a wider region".

'Unlawful killing'

General Bobetko, who was the Croatian army chief of staff for most of Croatia's 1991-1995 war against Serb separatists, has said he would rather die than stand in the dock on war crimes charges.

Bobetko at veterans' parade
Bobetko 'did not punish' killers
The nationalist opposition in parliament has demanded that Croatia freeze co-operation with the tribunal in The Hague, and has threatened civil disobedience.

Polls suggest that 80% of Croats oppose the general's extradition.

Only President Stipe Mesic has urged General Bobetko and the government to co-operate fully with the court, and avoid international isolation.

The indictment blames the general for the "unlawful killing of at least 100 Serb civilians and captured or wounded soldiers" during and after a 1993 military action in a Serb-dominated enclave known as the Medak Pocket.

Ill health

Prosecutors say he knew his troops were killing Serbs and failed to prevent or punish the crime.

Prime Minister Ivan Racan has referred the indictment to the country's constitutional court, which could take weeks or months to make a judgement.

His government has said the indictment incriminates a legitimate military action to liberate an area occupied by Serb rebels.

Correspondents say that, if all else fails, the government is likely to plead that the general's poor health makes it impossible for him to travel to The Hague.

General Bobetko is the highest-ranking Croat, and the oldest person to be indicted by the Hague tribunal.

Frontrunner

The tribunal has told Croatia it is obliged to arrest and hand over the general and dismissed the challenge to the indictment as "absolutely ridiculous".

Under the late President Franjo Tudjman, Croatia came close to international sanctions for failing to hand over a dozen Bosnian Croat indictees in 1997.

The country's new leadership has up to now had a reputation as a frontrunner in the region for its readiness to co-operate with the tribunal.


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