Prague, 22 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two suspects indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia said today that they will surrender to The Hague-based court. The announcements came just hours before a Yugoslav government deadline passed for 23 war crimes suspects to turn themselves in or face arrest.
Former Yugoslav army Chief of Staff General Dragoljub Ojdanic and former Croatian Serb rebel leader Milan Martic reportedly submitted surrender papers to the Yugoslav Justice Ministry. Deputy Justice Minister Nebojsa Sarkic says he will order the arrests of those who have not turned themselves in by midday today.
The two surrenders mark a first for the Yugoslav government, which passed a new law two weeks ago requiring cooperation with the UN war crimes court. The amendment came after the United States froze about $40 million in pending U.S. aid because of Belgrade's recalcitrance.
Last week, the Yugoslav government published a list of 23 suspects wanted by the UN tribunal, calling on the suspects to turn themselves in by the weekend. The government said it will offer guarantees to the tribunal so that those surrendering can be free until their trials.
A deadline for suspects to surrender expired on 20 April, but because the courts do not work on the weekend, it was extended until today.
Lawyer Strahinja Kastratovic said today that Martic, a former leader of Serbs in Croatia, has decided to "defend himself in the name of the Serbian people." Kastratovic said it is up to Yugoslav authorities to decide when to send him to The Hague.
Martic was indicted by the tribunal in 1995 for allegedly ordering retaliatory missile fire against Croatian forces in Zagreb during the secessionist war with Yugoslavia.
Martic's decision follows that of Ojdanic, who announced at the weekend that he would turn himself over to The Hague-based court sometime this week.
Ojdanic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service yesterday that the timing of his transfer will depend on whether he receives a guarantee from Yugoslav authorities that his voluntary surrender will allow him to remain out of detention until his trial.
"I'm not interested in that kind of prognosis [determining exactly when I will go to The Hague]. But it's probably going to be this week when [the authorities] finish all these proceedings, meaning that the federal government should give me guarantees that it will request that the tribunal give me a chance to defend myself while being free."
Ojdanic says he does not consider his action to be an actual "surrender." Instead, he says he is obeying the laws of his country. Ojdanic believes a trial at The Hague will give him an opportunity to defend the actions of the Yugoslav army in Kosovo.
"Even though my going to The Hague tribunal seems like a voluntary action according to the semantics, it is not. My decision to hand myself over is based on my intention to carry out the will of the people's representatives in the federal parliament that adopted the law. As to the constitutionality of this law, I have no comment at this time. Some were calling this surrender, but I don't take [my action] as surrender or as a treason to my co-fighters. On the contrary, I take this is an opportunity to defend the army, the people, and the state before the tribunal and to prove my innocence, to prove my high moral ethics, and the ethics of the army."
Ojdanic commanded Yugoslav army and Serbian special police troops during the Kosovo campaign of 1998 and 1999. The Hague tribunal charges him and his co-accused with several counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation, forcible transfer, and persecution on political, racial, and religious grounds.
Although the former military leader feels it is his duty to surrender, he says he is "bitterly hurt" by parliament's decision to pass a new law on cooperation with The Hague. Ojdanic says he only learned about his indictment from a newspaper and the Internet. He says that after learning of his indictment, he requested that a domestic court review the legality of his actions in Kosovo.
"I've only seen [the indictment] on the Internet. The first time I heard of the indictment was when I read about it in the newspaper 'Novosti.' According to our criminal code, as well as the statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, and having understood The Hague indictment was groundless, I asked the authorities in writing to put me on trial [in a domestic court]. But nothing came of that. And so, the destiny of my indictment depends on this new law on cooperation with The Hague tribunal. I have to stress that I am very disappointed by this way of acting by my state and the people to whom I honestly carried out my duties. So I feel bitterly hurt."
Ojdanic was indicted in May 1999 along with former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, former Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, and the late Serbian Interior Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, who committed suicide to protest parliament's adoption of the tribunal cooperation law earlier this month.
So far, there has been no sign that the tribunal's most wanted suspects -- former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic -- have any intention of surrendering. But Deputy Federal Justice Minister Nebojsa Sarkic said today that negotiations are going on with several other suspects from the list. Sarkic did not reveal any names. He did say, however, that a list of those intending to surrender will be published in the near future.