EU puts off Serbia trade decision

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union on Tuesday kept up pressure on Serbia to do more to resolve war crimes by again delaying a decision on unfreezing trade benefits despite the arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

After Karadzic’s arrest last week, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn urged the bloc to grant improved trade conditions to Serbia, which hopes to join the EU one day.

But diplomats said ambassadors from the 27 EU states agreed to wait for Karadzic’s transfer to the Hague war crimes tribunal and for U.N. war crimes prosecutor Serge Brammertz to report on whether Serbia was fully cooperating with the court — the condition for unblocking Belgrade’s EU path.

An EU diplomat said envoys had agreed on these conditions last week and there had been no new developments. “Both are still lacking,” he said after the ambassadors’ last meeting before a month-long summer break.

Asked whether this meant the decision was postponed until September at the earliest, the diplomat said: “You could put it like that. It’s postponed until we have those two elements.”

Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, his military chief in the 1992-95 Bosnia war, are indicted for the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica and the 43-month siege of Sarajevo.

More than 11,000 people died in Sarajevo from mortars, sniper fire, malnutrition and illness.

Another diplomat did not rule out an earlier decision if there were new developments possibly arising from a visit to Serbia in mid-August by Brammertz.

“If they were to catch Mladic, or if Brammertz’s visit to Belgrade … were to produce major progress, then I wouldn’t be surprised if the EU were able to react in a shorter time,” he said. “But nothing is planned or foreseen now before September.”

GENOCIDE SUSPECT STILL AT LARGE

EU foreign ministers last week called the arrest a milestone on Serbia’s road to joining the EU, but several said Belgrade must go further to reap full benefits.

Belgrade is keen to send Karadzic to The Hague as soon as possible to avoid simmering tension and protracted protests by nationalists and also to unlock the coveted EU trade benefits.

Sources say the government is ready to approve his extradition, but the timing of the actual transfer partly depends on an appeal filed by Karadzic’s lawyer last week.

The EU signed a long-delayed Stabilization and Association (SAA) pact with Serbia that is the first step on the long road towards EU membership in April. However it vowed not to ratify the pact or unlock its trade benefits until all EU states agreed that Belgrade was complying fully with the Hague tribunal.

Any decision to reward Serbia must be unanimous. The Netherlands and Belgium have taken the toughest line among the 27 EU states in insisting that conditions be fully met.

Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Rob Dekker said the Netherlands was very happy with the arrest of Karadzic and appreciated the cooperation of the Serbian government.

“But we are still waiting for Radovan Karadzic’s transfer to the Hague, the arrest of Mladic and Serbia still has to set up a witness protection program,” he said. “We are also waiting for Mr. Brammertz’s position on Serbia’s cooperation.”

Last week EU foreign ministers reaffirmed Serbia could still “accelerate its progress towards the EU” but gave no timeframe for candidate status — the next rung on the ladder which Belgrade wants to secure as early as the end of this year.

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