The United States said Wednesday Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina still need to apprehend Balkans war crimes fugitives if they hope for further integration with NATO and other Euro-Atlantic organizations. The two countries, along with newly independent Montenegro, were invited this week to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have long sought entry into the NATO partnership group as a stepping-stone to full membership in the alliance, and other key regional groupings, including the European Union.

But the State Department says the two Balkans states can expect to advance no farther in the integration process until the remaining top indicted war crimes figures from the 1990's Balkans conflict are apprehended.

NATO announced at the end of its two-day summit in the Latvian capital, Riga, that the Partnership invitations to the two countries and Montenegro were made because of the contributions they can make to stability in the Balkans.

The invitations had previously been denied to Bosnia and Serbia because of their failure to arrest the remaining war crimes suspects, most notably former Bosnian-Serb President Radovan Karadzic and his wartime military chief, Ratko Mladic.

The decision to bring them into the Partnership for Peace was welcomed by the two governments, but there were expressions of consternation from human rights advocates and U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who said she was surprised and disappointed by the move.

NATO makes decisions by consensus and thus the United States supported the action. But at a news briefing, Deputy State Department Spokesman Tom Casey said it would be a mistake if the Bosnian and Serbian governments or others interpreted the decision as meaning the war crimes issue is no longer important:

"Both countries have turned over dozens of people indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal, and they have stated their commitment to continue cooperation with them," said Tom Casey. "But despite that progress both countries do need to do more to insure that the six remaining fugitives, which includes Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, are apprehended as quickly as possible. And I do think it's pretty clear, if you look at what decisions have been made here, that further integration, not only into NATO but into some of the other Euro-Atlantic institutions, is going to be contingent on the full resolution of those cases."

Karadzic and Mladic are wanted by the Hague tribunal on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for the deaths of thousands of people, mainly Bosnian Muslims, in the Balkans war.

The two have been variously reported to have been sheltered in Serbia and in majority-Serb areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the issue has strained U.S. relations with both.

Spokesman Casey said the partnership invitation was based on broader issues, including political, economic and defense reforms in the two countries.

News reports say the gesture to Serbia was partly an effort by NATO to defuse the growing influence of nationalist hardliners there in advance of parliamentary elections next month.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said NATO had sent a message to what he termed "retrograde forces" in Serbia that there would be no return to the past, a reference to the violence of the past decade.

NATO indicated it was prepared to invite three other Balkan countries, Croatia, Macedonia and Albania, to join the alliance in 2008 if they meet membership requirements.

All three are currently participating in the pre-membership Partnership for Peace.