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War Crimes Tribunal Faces New Challenge

Prague, March 8 (RFE/RL) - The International War Crimes Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia is facing yet another challenge as it demands that Serbia hand over a soldier arrested on suspicion of taking part in mass killings last summer in Srebrenica.

Prosecutors are asking Serbian officials to transfer the soldier, Drazen Erdemovic, to the Hague-based international court so that he can testify in war crimes proceedings.

Erdemovic, along with a second man, Radoslav Kremenovic, was arrested by Yugoslav police earlier this week in the Serbian town of Novi Sad, northwest of Belgrade. The Serbian prosecutor's office said in a statement yesterday that Erdemovic was suspected of taking part in what it termed "the mass liquidation of the civilian population" after the fall of the eastern enclave of Srebrenica, a former United Nations "safe area." It said Erdemovic had confessed in the presence of a defense attorney and was ordered jailed by a judge. Serbian police said the second man, Kremenovic, had been arrested for hiding Erdemovic.

Erdemovic is the first person to be arrested in connection with the assault on Srebrenica, which left more than 5,000 people, mostly Bosnian Muslims, unaccounted for. Survivors have testified that Bosnian Serbs carrried out mass executions of Muslims attempting to flee.

If Erdemovic was in fact involved in the massacres at Srebrenica, he would be able to provide first-hand evidence of one of the worst atrocities Europe has seen since the end of the Second World War. Erdemovic would also be in a position to reveal the chain of command and thereby help build the case against Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who have been indicted by the Tribunal for their roles in Srebrenica.

The Tribunal's Chief Prosecutor, South African Judge Richard Goldstone, issued a statement yesterday saying that the two men should be handed over to The Hague for questioning. He said the two are "believed to be in a position to give relevant evidence" related to the investigation into alleged atrocities committed in Srebrenica. Goldstone said prosecutors would meet Yugoslav government officials next week in Belgrade to discuss the case. Authorities in Belgrade have not yet responded to the Tribunal's request.

U.S. officials have described Erdemovic's arrest by Serb police as a violation of the Dayton peace accords, which commit all sides to cooperate with the international Tribunal. U.S. State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns said yesterday that Washington is urging Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to transfer the men as requested.

Burns said Erdemovic had made statements that would "confirm others' accounts of mass killings in the wake of the Serb takeover of Srebrenica." He said that, based on the suspect's voluntary statements to the media before his arrest, it appeared Erdemovic "participated in, or witnessed, the death of nearly 1,200 men captured by Bosnian Serb forces last July after Srebrenica was overrun."

Burns was referring to recent media reports about Erdemovic, who was interviewed by the U.S. television network ABC and the French daily "Figaro" just before his arrest. According to a report in today's "Figaro," Erdemovic was a Bosnian Croat who was serving in the Bosnian Serb army. The paper says a small number of Croats and Muslims, usually from mixed backgrounds, fought with the Bosnian Serbs during the war.

Erdemovic told "Figaro" he had taken part in the mass killings at Srebrenica and personally had killed about 70 people attempting to flee the enclave. He said the victims had been driven to the village of Pilica, where the mass executions had taken place. Erdemovic said: "The Serb drivers were terrified but (the firing squad commander) forced them to kill at least one Muslim each. That way they wouldn't be tempted to testify." Erdemovic, "Figaro" said, had decided to go into hiding after agreeing to testify before the War Crimes Tribunal.

According to the ABC report, Erdemovic decided to tell his story after a conflict with his commander. ABC said that the Yugoslav police confiscated a tape of its interview as its reporter was leaving Belgrade on a flight to London. Erdemovic was detained soon after he was interviewed.

Erdemovic's arrest follows several moves by Milosevic to tighten his grip on power. The Serbian leader has clamped down on the media by closing a popular independent radio station and cracking down the local Soros Foundation, which had been supporting civic and humanitarian projects.

Correspondents say the renewed trend towards repression of dissent within Serbia may indicate an overall hardening of Belgrade's stance on several fronts, including the issue of war crimes.

The Dayton peace accords commit the governments of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia to "cooperate fully" with the War Crimes Tribunal. But Serbia previously has said that the extradition of war crimes suspects is against the country's constitution. Instead, it has pledged to try alleged war criminals at home.

Serbia is not alone in resisting extradition requests from the international Tribunal. Croatia too has failed to pass legislation clearing the way for the transfer of suspected war criminals.

Analysts say the biggest problem facing the Tribunal today is its lack of arrests. The court has indicted 53 suspects, including 46 Serbs, and seven Croats. But it has only two in custody, both of whom are Bosnian Serbs. The lack of progress in arresting indicted suspects is said to have eroded confidence in the Tribunal.

For many, Erdemovic's case is seen as a test of Milosevic's pledge to cooperate with war crimes investigators. But it is also being viewed as a test of the Tribunal's credibility and effectiveness in bringing impartial justice to Bosnia's victims.