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Croatia: Hague Prosecutor Says Vatican Is Shielding Top War Crimes Fugitive

Carla Del Ponte (file photo) Carla Del Ponte, the Hague-based war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, told London's "The Daily Telegraph" of 20 September that she believes that leading fugitive indictee and former Croatian General Ante Gotovina is hiding in an undisclosed Franciscan monastery in Croatia. She also charged that the Roman Catholic Church is refusing to cooperate on the matter.

The daily noted that she has "been 'extremely disappointed' to encounter a wall of silence from the Vatican. Frustrated by months of secret but fruitless appeals to leading Vatican officials, including a direct appeal to Pope Benedict XVI, Del Ponte has decided to make the matter public." The pope has yet to reply to her written request that he intervene in the matter, she noted. The paper quoted her as saying that she has "information [Gotovina] is hiding in a Franciscan monastery, and so the [Roman] Catholic Church is protecting him. I have taken this up with the Vatican, and the Vatican refuses totally to co-operate with us."

She thinks that the Vatican could "pinpoint in a few days" in which monastery of about 80 in Croatia Gotovina is allegedly hiding if it wanted to do so. The daily added that "Del Ponte traveled to Rome [in July] to share her intelligence with the Vatican's 'foreign minister,' Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo. He refused to help, telling her the Vatican was not a state and thus had 'no international obligations' to help the UN to hunt war criminals."

Del Ponte stressed that her hosts "said they have no intelligence, [but] I don't believe that. I think that the Catholic Church has the most advanced intelligence services." She added: "Mgr. Lajolo said to me: 'Let me know in which monastery Gotovina is hiding.' I said, if I knew, I would not be here in Rome." Del Ponte pointed out that she is "doubly disappointed" by the Vatican because she is a Roman Catholic.
The Franciscans in western Herzegovina -- outside Croatia's frontiers -- have a particular and centuries-old reputation for Croatian nationalism and independence of both the Zagreb-based church hierarchy and the Vatican itself.

She also asked the Holy See for a repudiation of a recent statement by Mile Bogovic, the bishop of Gospic and Senj, denouncing the tribunal as a "political court" seeking to blacken Croatia's past. Bogovic also called Gotovina "a symbol of victory" because of his role in the August 1995 Croatian military campaign known as Storm that ended the Serbian insurgency in the Dalmatian hinterland that threatened Bogovic's diocese.

If Del Ponte does identify the alleged monastery, it will be interesting to see exactly where it is. The Franciscans in western Herzegovina -- outside Croatia's frontiers -- have a particular and centuries-old reputation for Croatian nationalism and independence of both the Zagreb-based church hierarchy and the Vatican itself. Those Franciscans are often local men with a strong identity with their flock and a tradition of self-assurance. If Gotovina is indeed hiding with Franciscans in western Herzegovina or in neighboring areas of Croatia, it might pose a challenge for the Holy See and the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia as well as for the tribunal.

The Croatian Bishops' Conference, for its part, denied Del Ponte's charges in a statement released on 20 September, dpa reported. The bishops said: "We reject Del Ponte's accusations about the Catholic Church and the Holy See and find them unacceptable. The leadership of the Catholic Church in Croatia has no knowledge or indication as to where Gotovina might be." The bishops added that "it is clear to us that the chief prosecutor is frustrated [at not having caught Gotovina], so her statements could be explained in that sense."

Gotovina has been on the run since 2001, when the tribunal charged him with crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities committed against Serbian civilians during Storm. The Croatian authorities have said repeatedly that Gotovina is not in their country. President Stipe Mesic, who made a point after taking office in 2000 of weakening the role of nationalists and militant war veterans groups in political life, argues with certainty that Gotovina is not in Croatia. The media there note that the former general once served in the French Foreign Legion and allegedly has a French passport as well as an international network of contacts as a result. Mesic and other Croatian leaders have therefore suggested that anyone looking for Gotovina might better try Paraguay or some other distant country rather than Croatia.

The United States is offering a reward of over $5 million for Gotovina. Croatia's application to join the EU is currently on hold pending his arrest and extradition. Since all mainstream Croatian political parties regard EU admission as a top priority, the Gotovina case is taken particularly seriously in Zagreb.

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