- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro — Serbia’s new prime minister said yesterday that extraditing top suspects to the U.N. war crimes tribunal will not be his top priority, defying U.S. threats to cut aid and crucial political support to the troubled Balkan republic.

Vojislav Kostunica, the former Yugoslav president and a longtime opponent of the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, said in an interview that Serbia has more important issues to deal with — like simmering social tensions and a ruined economy.

“We should talk — plead if necessary — to find a solution that is not black and white and which allows us to survive,” said Mr. Kostunica, who like many Serbs condemns the U.N. court as anti-Serb. “This country is not a simple deliverer of human goods to The Hague tribunal.”

Mr. Kostunica’s comments will almost certainly anger the United States, which says Serbia must hand over war crimes suspects in order to receive $100 million this year in aid and other support from international financial organizations.

This year, the U.S. Congress for the first time specifically mentioned the arrest of former Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, who was indicted by the U.N. war crimes court for genocide over the killing of about 8,000 men and boys in the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995.

By March 31, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is to decide if Serbia has cooperated with the tribunal to get the planned aid — crucial for its stalled economy.

Mr. Kostunica argued that arrests and extraditions would only strengthen the ultranationalist Radical Party, which has seen a resurgence in recent months and gained the most seats in December parliamentary elections.

He said the government will not extradite four other Serbian generals indicted by the tribunal in September for atrocities during the Kosovo War. Even Serbia’s previous government refused to hand them over because the charges against them were too vague, Mr. Kostunica said.

He became Yugoslav president after helping to oust Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and was opposed when former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic’s pro-Western government organized Mr. Milosevic’s extradition to the tribunal in 2001. Mr. Djindjic was assassinated a year ago.

Mr. Kostunica became Serbia’s prime minister-designate Friday after turning for support to Mr. Milosevic’s political party, the Socialists. He is to form a minority government next week.

The Socialists — linked to war crimes and other human-rights violations — faded dramatically following Mr. Milosevic’s fall from the Yugoslav presidency.

But they control 22 seats in the 250-seat assembly after the December elections and could exert significant influence over the new Cabinet.

“That party is legal and has not been banned,” Mr. Kostunica said. “There are no first- or second-rate parties.”

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