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UN: War Crimes Tribunal Welcomes Seselj's Surrender

The chief prosecutor of the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Carla Del Ponte, is welcoming the decision by Serbian nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj -- recently indicted by the tribunal -- to turn himself in for trial. Meanwhile, as RFE/RL reports, NATO has announced the detention of three Kosovar Albanians indicted by the tribunal.

Prague, 18 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The 14 February indictment of Vojislav Seselj by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague on eight counts of crimes against humanity and six counts of violations of the laws or customs of war came as little surprise.

Seselj had announced on 3 February that he had already booked a flight to The Hague to face the tribunal.

Seselj, chairman of the Serbian Radical Party, stands accused of having incited ethnic hatred in public speeches and of having encouraged his paramilitary forces to commit violent acts against non-Serbs through much of the former Yugoslavia from 1990 through 1995.

Seselj denies the charges and says the indictments are part of a U.S.-led plot to remove him from Serbia, where he says he is perceived as posing a threat to the country's pro-Western leaders. The nationalist leader won 1 million votes last year in a failed bid for the Serbian presidency.

Seselj says he will go to The Hague on 24 February "to defend Serbian national interests from the West."

In contrast to former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, who surrendered to the tribunal last month, Seselj says the Serbian government is not needed to guarantee that he does not disappear or flee. Speaking in his traditionally cynical tone, Seselj says he doubts he will receive any special treatment in The Hague: "Even once I surrender, I'd dismiss this idea [of guarantees]. I will depart on 24 February at 6:40 a.m. on a scheduled flight to Amsterdam. I expect them to be waiting for me warmly at The Hague. I expect red-carpet treatment, an honor guard, martial music, the Serbian flag, and so on. What do I [really] expect? That the police will escort me away in handcuffs. That's what I expect."

It remains to be seen whether the tribunal will release Seselj on his own recognizance pending trial and, if so, under what conditions.

The tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, currently on a visit to Serbia and Montenegro, welcomed Seselj's decision to turn himself in: "It is absolutely a good decision. Voluntary surrender -- it's important, it's important for us."

Del Ponte describes voluntary surrender as the "first step" in being able to obtain provisional release so that a defendant can stand trial while free and not in custody.

Del Ponte says she had hoped that her first visit to the region this year "would have been to celebrate full cooperation" by Serbia with the tribunal. But she says she is once again visiting Belgrade "because of too many outstanding issues burdening our relations": "I face again obstruction, or at least no real will in obtaining access to documents."

However, the office of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic subsequently issued a statement saying the tribunal can hardly expect Serbian authorities to hand over documents that it says were destroyed during NATO's 78-day bombing campaign of Yugoslavia nearly four years ago.

Nevertheless, Djindjic, in talks with Del Ponte, expressed his government's willingness to improve cooperation with the tribunal if obstructions to the speedy inclusion of Serbia and Montenegro in the European Union are eased.

For her part, Del Ponte says she has not seen any progress in locating and arresting indicted war criminals who are still at large, such as Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and former Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadzic. Del Ponte says most of the suspects are either residing in, or freely traveling through, Serbia: "Unfortunately, I am not satisfied with the level of cooperation provided by Serbia and even [by] Montenegro."

The tribunal has indicted Mladic for war crimes and genocide for allegedly ordering and carrying out a massacre at Srebrenica, where more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb troops in 1995. Mladic is also accused for his role in the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo. He is believed to be hiding in Serbia and has been repeatedly spotted in Belgrade, while Karadzic has been reported to be in hiding in the Bosnian Serb entity, east of Foca/Srbinje near the border with Montenegro.

Del Ponte notes that the new state's Constitutional Charter, in contrast to previous Yugoslav legislation, does not bar extradition.

Meanwhile, the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, KFOR, has announced its first detention of war crimes suspects indicted by the tribunal and residing in Kosovo. KFOR spokesman British Colonel Anthony Adams said, "KFOR has detained three individuals in Kosovo believed to be the persons named in war crimes indictments issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia."

In Brussels last night, NATO released the names of the three, all Kosovar Albanians who had served in the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK): Harradin Balaj, Isak Musliu, and Agim Murtezi.

NATO says the three are currently "at a safe location" pending transfer to the tribunal's jail near The Hague. The three are accused of having committed or having aided and abetted the execution, imprisonment, and cruel treatment of both Serbian and Albanian civilians while serving as commanders and guards at a UCK camp at Llapushnik in Kosovo's central Drenica Valley between May and July 1998.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson issued a statement saying the latest arrests represent a significant step in NATO's drive to detain those under indictment for war crimes throughout the region: "This should also send a message that we will act against any person indicted for war crimes, regardless of their ethnicity."

He says each fugitive sent to The Hague makes it easier to build lasting peace in the Balkans.

Robertson called on all remaining fugitives in the region, in particular Karadzic and Mladic, to surrender to the tribunal: "Let me be crystal clear to those with guilty consciences. You have only two choices: Turn yourself in with dignity, or justice will be brought to you. The net is closing."