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Sunday, 11 February, 2001, 05:39 GMT
Croatians rally to war crimes suspect
Croatian nationalist rally
The opposition HDZ is said to be linked to the protests
Croatian nationalists have been staging rallies and blocking roads in protest against the arrest warrant issued for a retired general, Mirko Norac, over alleged war crimes.

He is suspected of involvement in the killing of 40 ethnic Serb civilians during fighting in the Gospic region in 1991.

We are clearly faced with attempts to resort to pressure and even violence in order to change court decisions in this country

Prime Minister Ivica Racan
Correspondents say the fugitive general is considered by many Croatians as a war hero.

But the Croatian president, Stipe Mesic, has said in a broadcast on Croatian television that, although General Norac had won great credit as a soldier, he must hand himself in for trial on the charges of killing Serb civilians.

The president said that by throwing up roadblocks across the country, General Norac's supporters were only doing harm to their hero's cause.

As he spoke, the Interior Ministry warned that it would take "all legal measures to ensure safe and unhindered road traffic and protection of people and property".

Prime Minister Ivica Racan, whose reformist government has been pursuing suspected war criminals since it took office last year, said that the country's fledgling democracy and judiciary were at stake.

Gen Norac
Unconfirmed reports say General Norac has sought refuge in Bosnia
"We are clearly faced with attempts to resort to pressure and even violence in order to change court decisions in this country," he said on TV.

"We refuse to have anyone control the courts by political means, and we reject populist methods of pressure and violence directed against the judiciary.

"Croatia is a law-governed state and the democratically elected authority wants to prove it."

Mr Racan said that people were entitled to express their opinions, but not to affect the interests of the country through such actions as blocking roads.

Mr Racan also criticised calls by the main opposition party, the rightwing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), to answer questions in parliament about the case.

"I am surprised that the gentlemen from the HDZ have called me about something that is exclusively the business of this country's judiciary," he said.

"They should have been a little more principled."

Damage to economy

The Croatian government has been unable to state officially General Norac's whereabouts since he vanished after an arrest warrant was issued.

However, an anonymous "senior government official" told the Croatian news agency HINA that the retired military commander actually wanted to surrender himself but was being stopped by his supporters.

"Mirko Norac wants to be brought to justice but is prevented from doing so by people around him," the official said.

The same source added that there was strong evidence that the HDZ were closely linked to the road protests.

Meanwhile, the Transport Ministry said that the protests were causing "enormous short- and long-term damage" to the Croatian economy.

Given the country's troubled image, the long-term consequences for the key sector of tourism, for example, were "immeasurable".

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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See also:

28 Aug 00 | Europe
Croat war crimes witness killed
13 Dec 99 | Europe
Analysis: Where next for Croatia
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