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Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 01:40 GMT 02:40 UK
Belgrade's shot in the dark
Over 260 were killed after the fall of Vukovar in 1991
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By Alix Kroeger
BBC correspondent in Belgrade

The Yugoslav Government is making one last appeal to 23 publicly indicted war crimes suspects to give themselves up to the Hague tribunal in return for guarantees of pre-trial release.

Ratko Mladic
Mladic is indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity
In practice, this is unlikely to yield any results: most of those on the wanted list have been under indictment for several years.

In the case of war-time Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, his indictment - for genocide and crimes against humanity - dates back to 1995.

If he has not given himself up yet, he is unlikely to do so now, just because the government asks him nicely.

Looming deadline

The indictees were given until 20 April 2002 to surrender.

After that, the machinery for extradition is set in motion. The indictments are forwarded to the courts in Belgrade and the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.

Colonel Milan Mrksic
Col Mrksic is indicted over the Vukovar massacre

Ministers said the process would take 10 or 11 days to complete. Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic has said the first extraditions would take place by the end of the April.

The government has published a list of names of those it is calling on to surrender themselves.

As well as General Mladic, they include the so-called Vukovar Three, indicted for the killing of more than 260 people after the fall of Vukovar during the war in Croatia in November 1991.

Two retired military officers, Milan Zec and Vladimir Kovacevic, indicted for the siege of Dubrovnik in 1991, also figure on the list; their two co-accused have already surrendered voluntarily.

Legal quandary

Only 10 of those named hold Yugoslav citizenship; the others come from elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, including Milan and Sredoje Lukic, accused of burning alive about 65 Muslims locked in a house in the Bosnian town of Visegrad.

Their co-accused, Mitar Vasiljevic, is already on trial in The Hague.

Yugoslavia needs American backing if it is to secure $800m in loan guarantees from the International Monetary Fund over the next three years

The Lukics - cousins, not brothers - have been in hiding for several years but are believed to be on Yugoslav territory.

The government said it would offer the same guarantees to non-Yugoslav citizens who gave themselves up before the deadline.

Two of those indicted for war crimes in Kosovo, Nikola Sainovic and Dragoljub Ojdanic, have indicated they might be willing to surrender.

But there could be a catch. General Ojdanic has said he would surrender when a law on co-operation with The Hague is adopted "in accordance with the Yugoslav constitution".

The law adopted goes against the constitution, by allowing the extradition of Yugoslav citizens.

However, ministers have warned against a further round of appeals to Yugoslavia's constitutional court.

Keeping up appearances

The timeline for extradition is already running well behind schedule.

And there is more at stake than $40m from the US. Yugoslavia needs American backing if it is to secure $800m in loan guarantees from the International Monetary Fund over the next three years.

That could provide the motivation for a reluctant government finally to begin handing over its citizens to the tribunal - but only after it is delayed for long enough that its citizens do not perceive it as the lackey of foreign powers.

See also:

17 Apr 02 | Europe
Hague's wanted men
14 Apr 02 | Europe
Top Serb suspect dies
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