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 Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 00:29 GMT
US threatens to cut aid to Belgrade
Pierre-Richard Prosper, left, meets with Serbia's prime minister Zoran Djindjic
Prosper (left) urged Serbs to cooperate

The authorities in Belgrade have been told that they must hand over three key war crimes suspects by 31 March or risk losing financial aid and other support from the United States.

Bosnian Serb army commander General Ratko Mladic
Mladic's arrest could mean an end to further prosecutions
The message was delivered to Belgrade during a visit by the US Department of State's Ambassador for War Crimes Issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper.

Mr Prosper suggested if the three individuals are handed over there would be less pressure to send other suspects to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

The message to politicians in Belgrade could not have been clearer.

Arrest and hand over three of the world's most wanted men and you will effectively be back in our good books.

Fail to do so and we will cut your aid.

Three people are holding this country to ransom, Mr Prosper said.

The United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, The Netherlands
Former Yugoslav leader Milosevic is currently on trial at The Hague
He was referring to the former Bosnian Serb army leader Ratko Mladic and two Serbs sought in connection with alleged war crimes in the town of Vukovar in Croatia.

They are Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic.

Significantly, Mr Prosper indicated that if the men are arrested Yugoslavia's remaining war crimes cases could be handled in local courts.

Privately US officials suggest that if Ratko Mladic is handed over they will consider the war crimes issue effectively closed.

Mr Prosper is expected to deliver a similar message to Bosnian Serb officials later this week.

The US wants their former political leader Radovan Karadzic extradited.

Economic need

The threat to hold back aid is important.

A similar threat in 2001 helped encourage politicians to order the arrest and extradition of the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Last year when the Americans threatened to hold back $40m in aid, two other key suspects left for The Hague.

After years of isolation and war Serbia desperately needs the money.

But most here feel it is unlikely that any of the three suspects will be arrested any time soon.

On Monday the former Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic gave himself up to The Hague.

Men like Ratko Mladic will not go so easily.

The Serbian Prime Minister said he would co-operate with the Hague but he could not promise immediate arrests.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Matthew Price
"After years of isolation and war, Yugoslavia desperately needs the money"

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Srebrenica massacre

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16 Jan 03 | Europe
30 Dec 02 | Europe
23 Oct 02 | Europe
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