The European Union has postponed the start of membership negotiations with Croatia after it failed to cooperate fully with the U.N. war crimes Tribunal in the Hague, which is seeking a fugitive Croatian general.  The dispute has prompted a diplomatic struggle in the European Union and put enormous pressure on the small Balkan country. 

Late last year the European Union agreed to start membership talks with Croatia on March 17.  But chief U.N. prosecutor Carla del Ponte repeatedly called for Zagreb to track down accused war criminal General Ante Gotovina and said Croatia was not doing enough to hand him over.

"I am expecting Gotovina as soon as possible transferred to the Hague," he said.  "And I must say that I am convinced that Croatia can do it.  So, I invited, many times, the Croatian government to fulfill its international obligation to transfer Gotovina to the Hague."

Prosecutor Del Ponte has said that General Gotovina is likely hiding in Croatia, and that some people in government may be sheltering him.  But Zagreb argues it is doing everything possible to find the general and Prime Minister Ivo Sanader says he is not in Croatia.

"Since we have no information, according to all work of services, intelligence services and police, that General Gotovina is in Croatia," he said.  "We have no information at all which would confirm that he is in Croatia.  I very much support the proposal to have Europol to also be active and to control whether General Gotovina is possibly in one of the member states of the European Union, or in Europe."

The general disappeared in July 2001 when he was indicted for killing Serbian civilians during an offensive against Serbian rebels in 1995.  At the same time, he is seen by many Croatians as a hero of their 1991 to 1995 independence war.

Michael Emerson, of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, says Croatian public opinion may be an obstacle to ending the dispute.

"He has also become politically a bit of a folk hero in Croatia," he noted.  "And this is today's political problem that Croatian public opinion, it seems, has not made up its mind whether he is a criminal or a hero.  And if Croatian public opinion and politicians are bending towards the view that he is a national hero that is precisely what the European Union does not want to hear."

Croatia hopes to be the second former Yugoslav republic to join the European Union.  Slovenia became the first when it joined last May.  Despite much hard work and sacrifice, things remain in jeopardy.  Luxembourg holds the E.U. presidency and Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker says General Gotovina is holding a nation hostage.

"Mr. Gotovina is playing a dangerous game," said Mr. Juncker.  "And if he is in Croatia he should be ready to be arrested and transferred to the Hague.  Because he does not have the right to take millions of Croatians as hostages.  This is not patriotic behavior.  And if Mr. Gotovina is the patriot he claims to be he has to do everything possible in order to enable the European Union to start the enlargement negotiations without any doubt in our minds."

Luxembourg has reassured Croatia that membership talks will open promptly, once the condition of full cooperation with the war crimes tribunal is met.  Foreign minister Jean Asselborn says the situation is clear.  He is heard through an interpreter.

"It is Croatia which has the key.  It is not the Hague, it is not ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia], it is not Brussels, Luxembourg, England, Austria or any other member state which has the key.  The key is in the hands of Croatia," he said.

E.U. officials stress that Croatia's future is in the European family, and they hope this stumbling block can be cleared away soon.