THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Serbia is unlikely to capture a major war crimes suspect in the coming weeks because potential Kosovo independence is distracting Belgrade, the chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor said on Thursday.
Carla del Ponte, who visited Belgrade on Monday, said she had become much less optimistic that former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, suspected of genocide, would be caught before she steps down. She had recently said she saw an “80 percent” chance of his arrest in December or January.
“Politically it is a very delicate situation,” del Ponte told Reuters in an interview. “In the end the Kosovo decision, in my personal evaluation, prevents the arrest of Mladic.”
Negotiations between Serbia and its breakaway Kosovo province formally end on Monday and international mediators have said there is no chance of a compromise, with Kosovo’s Albanian majority expected to declare independence in early 2008.
Despite Serbia’s potential loss of its medieval heartland, del Ponte said it was crucial for the European Union to keep up pressure on Serbia to hand over Mladic.
“Some states are coming now and saying poor Serbia. What? Serbia is hiding war criminals. Justice must not be neglected because of political issues,” she said.
Belgrade has initialed the first pre-membership accord with the EU, but Brussels says it needs to see more progress in cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in order to sign.
EU foreign ministers will discuss the issue at a meeting on Monday, when del Ponte will also give her last report to the United Nations Security Council before leaving her post to take up the job of Swiss ambassador to Argentina.
Del Ponte said a Serbian presidential election set for January 20 and February 13 also made a Mladic arrest unlikely.
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Delic called on the EU on Tuesday to speed up Belgrade’s accession process to give pro-Europeans a boost and prevent nationalists regaining power.
“The political will today is that Mladic should be in The Hague to allow Serbia to continue the procedure to enter the European Union, but politically they don’t want to arrest him and they know they could not persuade him to voluntarily surrender,” del Ponte said.
She said she was sad to leave office after eight years without the capture of Mladic and his political boss Radovan Karadzic, but said she hoped her successor Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz would keep up the pressure.
Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukevic was quoted as saying on Thursday that Mladic was within reach in Serbia. Del Ponte said she believed Karadzic was hiding in Orthodox monasteries somewhere in Serb parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Seen as heroes by hardliners, Mladic and Karadzic are both indicted for genocide, for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims and the 43-month siege of Sarajevo.
Del Ponte said her greatest moment in the job had been the arrest of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but the worst had been his death in custody last year, just two months before his marathon war crimes trial was due to finish.
She said the tribunal, due to close in the next couple of years, must be able to reconvene if Mladic and Karadzic are caught.
“How can you speak about reconciliation if the most responsible for genocide in Srebrenica are still at large?” she said.
Del Ponte said she will not keep an eye out for war criminals in Argentina: “My objective is to lower my golf handicap. I will finally be having an easy life.”
Editing by Caroline Drees