- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday froze tens of millions of dollars in aid to Serbia and Montenegro, charging that Belgrade has not done enough to bring war crimes suspects to justice.

The decision by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell puts on hold at least $26 million of a three-year, $100 million economic package for Serbia, designed to help the critical Balkan country rebuild after the overthrow of President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

About $43 million of the package already has been spent, and a part of the money — designated for humanitarian and other uses — will be exempt from the freeze.

Congress gave Mr. Powell until yesterday to impose the sanctions or certify that Belgrade was cooperating with the international tribunal in The Hague looking into suspected war crimes related to the Balkan ethnic clashes of the 1990s. Mr. Powell has waived sanctions against Serbia in the past, but State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said the new, more nationalist government in Belgrade had not done enough in recent months to justify another waiver.

Mr. Ereli said U.S. officials think that at least 16 persons sought by the Hague tribunal live or spend significant time in Serbia, including former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic.

“We call on the authorities in Belgrade to cooperate fully with the tribunal by arresting and transferring their fugitive indictees, particularly Ratko Mladic, to face justice before the tribunal,” he told reporters.

Ivan Vujacic, Serbia’s ambassador to Washington, said in a telephone interview yesterday that the decision was not a surprise, as U.S. officials had been telling Belgrade privately that a suspension of aid was likely. He said the dispute was “not over our cooperation with the tribunal, but over the level of our cooperation.”

“It’s more than a bump in the road, but it should not be overstated,” he added. “We believe that once we can demonstrate our cooperation is improving, the U.S. government will have an opportunity to review its decision.”

The aid cutoff, while relatively small, could affect decisions by private investors and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to do business with Belgrade.

The decision also comes just weeks after renewed violence in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo killed 28 persons and revived fears of new communal clashes between ethnic Serbs and Albanians. U.S. aid to Kosovo will continue despite the freeze on aid to the government in Belgrade.

Mr. Ereli appeared to be trying to soften the blow, saying Mr. Powell could lift the aid suspension quickly if Serbian cooperation improves.

“We want to see Serbia succeed. We want to work together with Serbia to help it meet its international obligations,” he said.

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