Australia govt to appeal Serb commander's freedom

CANBERRA, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Australia's government has asked the country's highest court to overturn a decision to free a former Serb commander accused of Balkan conflict war crimes after he won a fight against extradition to Croatia.

Officials acting for Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor lodged an appeal with the High Court of Australia against a lower court ruling this month that Dragan Vasiljkovic, 54, would not get a fair trial in Croatia, O'Connor's office said on Friday.

"An appeal was lodged on Thursday," a spokesman said, adding the application was made on behalf of the Croatian government.

"The Australian government takes international crime cooperation and allegations of war crimes seriously and is concerned to ensure that Australia does not become a safe haven for alleged criminals," he said.

Croatia holds Vasiljkovic, known as "Captain Dragan", responsible for torturing and killing Croat soldiers and civilians, as well as killing a foreign journalist, when he commanded a Serb paramilitary unit during Croatia's 1991-95 war.

Vasiljkovic, also known as Daniel Sneddon, and who holds both Australian and Serbian citizenship, has denied the allegations, which include accusations of rape.

He was released from an Australian jail earlier this month after winning a three-year legal battle against extradition. A Sydney court ruled there was "a substantial or real chance of prejudice" if he was extradited to Croatia.

"I will devote the rest of my life making sure no other Australian is going to go through such a miscarriage of justice as I have," Vasiljkovic told reporters at the time.

Croatia's Justice Minister Ivan Simonovic told the Australian newspaper on Friday that his office and Australian authorities were in permanent contact about appeal preparations. Vasiljkovic moved to Australia as a 12-year-old, but returned to Serbia in 1991 and allegedly ordered troops in the self-proclaimed republic of Srpska Krajina to fire on civilians in the town of Glina. He was arrested in January 2006. Croatia declared independence from communist Yugoslavia in 1991, but its Serb minority, backed by Belgrade, rebelled and seized a third of the country by force. Croatia crushed the rebellion in two offensives in 1995.

Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Jonathon Burch