BELGRADE (Reuters) - A Serbian ultra-nationalist freed on compassionate grounds by a United Nations war crimes court, then ordered to return for violating the terms of his release, thumbed his nose at the court on Wednesday by setting fire to a Croatian flag.
Vojislav Seselj, who has cancer and was freed in November, repeated that he would not voluntarily return to the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, which revoked his release order on Monday.
“When they come to arrest me, I’ll sit on the ground and they can carry me to the airport in their heroic arms,” the Serbian daily Blic quoted the 60-year-old firebrand as saying as he set light to a Croatian flag on the steps of Belgrade’s main courthouse.
The performance will only increase the pressure on Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a former protege of Seselj’s who broke with his party in 2008 to steer a more pro-Western course, to arrest him and return him to The Hague.
The Tanjug state news agency, citing a spokeswoman, reported that prosecutors had lodged criminal charges against Seselj for the flag-burning.
Though his Radical Party appears a spent force, Seselj’s re-appearance in public life has proven a headache for Vucic’s conservative government and triggered sometimes angry exchanges between Croatia, now a European Union member, and its former enemy Serbia, which wants to join.
It has also sharpened widespread criticism of the U.N. tribunal, which has yet to reach a verdict, 12 years after Seselj handed himself in, after years of stalling tactics by the defendant and the replacement of one of the three judges.
Croatia handed a protest note to the Serbian embassy in the capital Zagreb and said it was recalling its own ambassador from Serbia for consultations.
“Vojislav Seselj, an indicted war criminal, is using hate speech and bellicose rhetoric and symbols to try to influence the region, especially relations between Serbia and Croatia,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“European values imply good neighborly relations ... a key condition for Serbia’s success in its EU membership talks.”
Seselj is charged in The Hague with inciting murder and ethnic persecution during wars in Bosnia and Croatia as Yugoslavia fell apart.
The tribunal said it had revoked Seselj’s release order because he had repeatedly said he would not go back voluntarily.
The government has said it will consider how to respond. Vucic, who has accused the tribunal of trying to destabilize his government, on Tuesday appeared to rule out using force, saying Seselj would not be arrested in “a raid”.
Editing by Kevin Liffey