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Kostunica's warm debut

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October 14, 2000 


BIARRITZ, France, OCT 13 (AP) - Yugoslavia's new president Vojislav Kostunica can rest assured that his reluctance to bring Serb suspects to the war crimes tribunal will not cloud his international debut at a European Union summit Saturday, officials said.

EU leaders assembled for the two-day summit in this Atlantic resort are preparing to give Kostunica a hero's welcome when he arrives Saturday for a joint lunch designed to bestow further recognition on his democratic administration.

European Commission President Romano Prodi already has proposed granting Yugoslavia an injection of 200 million euros (dlrs 175 million) in emergency aid to help the bankrupt nation prepare for the coming winter and purchase badly needed food and medicines.

The money is separate from a dlrs 2 billion package of assistance for the reconstruction for Yugoslavia's economy and infrastructure, devastated by years of misrule by former strongman Slobodan Milosevic and by last year's NATO bombing campaign.

EU leaders are eager to quickly prop up Kostunica's new democratic government and prevent a possible resurgence of Milosevic's iron-handed rule.

Pressing Kostunica to deliver Milosevic and other indicted war criminals to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague - a move deeply unpopular even with Kostunica's own supporters - could only undermine the stability of the new administration.

"The political transition in Serbia is very tender, it is just several days old, so we must all be helpful and show some patience," Christina Galach, spokeswoman for the EU's foreign affairs chief, said Friday.

On Monday, European foreign ministers voted to lift the economic embargo that has helped decimate Yugoslavia's economy.

The EU closely coordinated its policy with President Bill Clinton's administration, which on Thursday also abolished most sanctions against Yugoslavia.

Washington, which announced plans to resume diplomatic ties with Belgrade, also has not set any conditions regarding the extradition of war crimes suspects.

Yet the issue will have to come up at some stage, said Nicole Fontaine, president of the European Parliament.

"While war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot be ignored, there can be no question that we need to distinguish between (them and) the most urgent needs of the new and vulnerable Serbia of today ... namely the consolidation of a fragile democracy which requires domestic peace and consensus," Fontaine said.

Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, has consistently been critical of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, claiming it was biased against the Serbs.

Top leaders of the pro-democracy coalition that swept Milosevic from power in elections held on Sept. 24, have instead suggested that Milosevic and his cronies should be tried by Yugoslav courts for crimes ranging from election rigging to the theft of public funds.

But the reluctance so far of the West to press Kostunica to bring indicted suspects to trial has rankled public opinion in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, where most of those crimes were committed.

Croatia's democratic government, which has gone out of its way to hand over suspects and evidence to The Hague, has come under severe domestic pressure for allegedly selling out to the West.

Privately, EU officials say Kostunica's new government will also be forced to cough up Milosevic and other suspects once conditions within the country stabilize.

"It would be inconceivable for regional stability if we did not adopt the same principles for everyone," said an EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It would be a very bad sign for Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo if we gave up on Milosevic," the official said. "We cannot ask the Croats to give up their generals to The Hague without asking the Yugoslavs to do the same with Milosevic."

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