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Croatia Indicts Former Defense Minister For Corruption

Former Croatian Defense Minister Berislav Roncevic

Former Croatian Defense Minister Berislav Roncevic

ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia has indicted a former defense minister for corruption, paving the way for the first anti-graft trial of a top government official in the European Union candidate country.

The state prosecutors said on their website ( they had indicted former Defense Minister Berislav Roncevic and an aide over a purchase of army trucks in 2004.

The former Yugoslav republic hopes to wrap up EU membership talks next year and join the bloc in 2012, but Brussels has told Croatia it must first step up the fight against widespread corruption and strengthen its judiciary.

Roncevic is accused of cancelling a tender to buy army trucks in 2004 and striking a deal directly with suppliers whose price was 10 million kuna ($2.06 million) higher than that of the tender winners. Roncevic has denied the charge.

Analysts said the indictment against Roncevic was good news for Croatia's EU hopes, but added that there were many more high-level corruption affairs waiting to be investigated.

"This is an important event in fighting corruption, though not a milestone, because there are so many similar affairs shaking Croatia," said Davor Butkovic, influential commentator and editor at Jutarnji List daily.

"Croatia is making efforts to reform its judiciary but it is unrealistic to expect this job will be entirely completed by the time the membership talks are expected to finish in mid-2010," he said.

Roncevic is the first present or past cabinet minister to be investigated for corruption since Croatia started implementing reforms and moving toward EU membership in 2000.

Zagreb has stepped up anti-graft efforts in the last two years, but because of the inefficient judiciary, few trials have been completed and even fewer led to convictions.

Earlier this month, police arrested several managers, including the former and current chief executives of a leading local food group, Podravka. It accused them of trying to buy a majority stake in Podravka using the company's own funds.