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Yugoslavia: Powell Uses Aid Deadline To Press Belgrade On War Crimes

Like last year, Washington wants Belgrade to make last-minute moves to help indict war crimes suspects in order to win U.S. financial aid. In 2001, the object was the arrest of former President Slobodan Milosevic. This year, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell expects Belgrade to provide more information about alleged war crimes -- and turn over suspects to The Hague war crimes tribunal -- to gain his backing for continued American aid. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, Powell has until 31 March to approve the aid.

Washington, 28 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Secretary Powell is welcoming recent moves by Serbia to improve its cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal but has yet to decide on continuing U.S. financial aid to Belgrade.

Following a volatile few weeks in relations -- including the brief detention in Belgrade of a U.S. diplomat accused of seeking state secrets on alleged war criminals -- Powell and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic sought to put a positive face on their ties when they met the media yesterday at the U.S. State Department.

Powell has until 31 March to decide if Belgrade has met conditions -- such as sending suspects to the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague -- imposed by the U.S. Congress in return for continuing aid to Serbia. At stake is $40 million for the rest of the financial year, which ends in October, as well as future American support in vital institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.

Powell praised Belgrade for moving this week to meet key conditions -- returning to Kosovo ethnic Albanians imprisoned under former President Slobodan Milosevic and improving cooperation with the war crimes tribunal, where Milosevic is the star defendant.

Powell: "I was pleased to note that the Serbian government has transferred 146 Kosovar Albanians back to Kosovo, and I thank the deputy prime minister for his leadership in making that happen. He also advised me today of a decree that his government has passed that will make cooperation with the tribunal easier and on a sounder basis for Serbian authorities."

But Powell said he expects more of Serbia, where more than a dozen war crimes suspects remain at large and enjoy some popular support. The government, meanwhile, has a dire need for U.S. and other foreign financial aid to avoid widespread social unrest.

Powell, who said he won't decide on continuing aid until this weekend (30-31 March), made this observation: "There are other items that I hope the government of Serbia will be able to do in the days ahead before I have to make my certification. The government is quite aware of those items in which we are interested with respect to access to archives and other indictees. And we have had a good cooperative relationship over the last 14 months on these issues, and so I hope that relationship will continue. And I will make my judgment about the certification over the weekend."

For his part, Covic said he is optimistic: "I believe that we have reached a full understanding with regard to the major agenda ahead of us, which is the certification issue."

The deputy prime minister added: "We have provided our assurances that we will do our best to solve all these issues, but the process of solving all these issues will be much easier with your assistance."

The "carrot-and-stick" approach of U.S. policy toward Serbia was first used in 2001, when Powell delayed his decision until 2 April when Yugoslav authorities arrested Milosevic. He was eventually deported to The Hague.

This year's deadline has prompted speculation that Serbia will hand over at least one suspect wanted by the war crimes tribunal. But that move would be unpopular among some nationalist Serbs, as well as Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who says the court is anti-Serb.

Covic made this observation: "We are aware of the fact that we have a very short time ahead of us. But we also want to emphasize that we have inherited a lot of very difficult problems."

U.S.-Serbian relations were strained recently after a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade was temporarily arrested on spy charges along with Deputy Prime Minister Momcilo Perisic. Serbian media speculate that Perisic, who later resigned, was passing on information about Milosevic's alleged war crimes.

Serbia's government, led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, is reportedly at odds with Kostunica over working with the tribunal. Kostunica opposed Milosevic's deportation, and a Serbian official recently accused of him of "protecting and cuddling cronies" of Milosevic -- a reference to the Yugoslav president's refusal to fire a military official believed to be behind Perisic's arrest.

Despite these recent difficulties, Covic insisted that democracy is moving forward in Serbia: "I believe that we will be able to overcome this moment and that we will be able to continue with the democratic transition in our country."

But, like last year, timing will be of the essence.