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UN Pressing Croatia on War Crimes Suspect - 2002-10-23

The United Nations is pressing Croatia to apprehend and extradite a war crimes suspect for trial. Indicted wartime General Janko Bobetko refuses to surrender. United Nations chief war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte is in Zagreb for talks on the case with Croatian leaders. The outcome could affect Croatia's hopes of joining NATO and the European Union.

Retired General Bobetko is 83 years old and suffers from heart problems and diabetes. Yet he refuses to check into a hospital because he is afraid he might be arrested there.

In Croatia, General Bobetko is widely revered as a hero of his country's war of independence against the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. But U.N. war crimes prosecutors say he is responsible for the 1993 killing of about 100 ethnic Serb civilians during a military operation aimed at regaining Croation territory held by Serb rebels.

Croatia's reformist government, fearing a potential backlash by nationalists, has refused to extradite General Bobetko. It has appealed the general's indictment last month by the tribunal and is awaiting the result of the appeal. Prime Minister Ivica Racan says his government will abide by the decision of the court's appeals council.

Ms. Del Ponte insists Croatia should reverse its refusal to hand over the general. And the two big Western institutions Croatia is set on joining in the years ahead - NATO and the European Union - have publicly urged the country to fulfill its obligations to the war crimes tribunal. This week, EU foreign ministers warned that failure to honor the tribunal's indictment of General Bobetko could hurt Croatia's bid to eventually join the bloc.

With war veterans guarding the general's Zagreb residence around the clock to prevent his arrest, Mr. Racan is in a difficult position. But he is looking for a way out of his dilemma.

A Western diplomat who monitors the Balkans from Brussels says the Croatian government is not willing to risk international sanctions for the sake of General Bobetko.

The diplomat says that, in exchange for General Bobetko's recognition of the court's jurisdiction, Croatia could propose that he be allowed to enter a plea via video link from Zagreb after being proclaimed by the tribunal as being unfit for trial and for travel to The Hague because of his illness.

But in order to pull that off, Mr. Racan will have to convince both the tough-minded Ms. Del Ponte and general Bobetko. And that is not going to be an easy task.