President Kostunica says U.S. pressure key to Yugoslav decision to hand over Milosevic |

President Kostunica says U.S. pressure key to Yugoslav decision to hand over Milosevic

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) – Yugoslavia’s president singled out U.S. pressure Tuesday as a main reason for his country’s change of heart on extraditing Slobodan Milosevic to the U.N. war crimes tribunal.

While President Vojislav Kostunica, a staunch critic of the court, sought to distance himself from the impending extradition, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic, said the handover was a virtual certainty.

Milosevic’s lawyers are appealing a government decree making the extradition of Yugoslav citizens possible. But Djindjic said not even a ruling by the highest court, the Constitutional Court, would overrule the tribunal’s claim on Milosevic.

Tribunal statutes will be ”directly applied, (even) if the Constitutional Court rules that the decree is unconstitutional,” he told reporters.

Milosevic lawyer Veselin Cerovic depicted the former president as ”proud but resigned,” saying his imprisoned client refused to speak to Investigative Judge Goran Cavlina when Cavlina asked Milosevic for a statement on the extradition procedure. Instead, Milosevic demanded to see his lawyers, Cerovic said.

”Milosevic feels that he is NATO’s prisoner,” said Cerovic. ”He believes that this is a gravest violation of his civil rights.”

Some 7,000 Milosevic supporters gathered Tuesday evening in Belgrade’s main square, demanding his release from prison and protesting extradition.

”We will give our lives for Slobo,” some chanted. Riot police cordoned off Belgrade’s Central Prison, where Milosevic is being held, concerned the crowd would march on the prison.

”Milosevic is not a war criminal, nor is any indicted Serb,” said Ivica Dacic, a senior official of Milosevic’s Socialist party.

The rally ended without major incidents, but the state Tanjug news agency reported an isolated attack on a group of protest participants by youths, leaving several people hurt.

Washington has linked U.S. financial aid for Yugoslavia to Milosevic’s extradition for trial for alleged Kosovo atrocities. Keeping up the pressure for his handover, the United States has not said whether it will attend an international conference Friday in Brussels, Belgium, meant to raise the money Yugoslavia needs to rebuild after 13 years of misrule under Milosevic, Kostunica’s predecessor.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed approval of the latest legal developments against Milosevic on Tuesday, in comments indicating the Americans were leaning toward participation.

”We very much welcome the moves that the Yugoslav government, the Serbian government have been taking,” Boucher said.

Kostunica said Milosevic cannot be extradited by Friday.

”The decree cannot be implemented in 48 hours, because that would mean that the defendant is deprived from his right to appeal and from some other rights,” Kostunica said.

Kostunica, who considers the tribunal in The Hague anti-Serb, sought to distance himself from Milosevic’s approaching handover, repeating previous arguments that local courts should have priority.

But he acknowledged that moves to extradite Milosevic were the result of U.S. pressure – and pressure from within the government from those wanting extradition.

”My attempt to have our citizens put on trial in our country was prevented by two things; pressure from Washington … and me and my party being a minority” within Yugoslavia’s governing coalition.

Earlier Tuesday, Milosevic’s lawyers met with the head of the Belgrade District Court who will rule on the extradition request from the U.N. war crimes tribunal.

One of the attorneys, Branimir Gugl, said Milosevic now has 24 hours to choose a defense lawyer, after which he will be questioned and will also have a three-day appeal period if the court decides that he should be handed over.

”The earliest possible time when the appeal process will be over is midnight on Monday,” Gugl said. But he suggested that the authorities could try to speed up the process.

”Someone is in a great hurry here,” he said.

Milosevic, imprisoned since April 1 for investigations of abuse of power and corruption, is sought by The Hague court for alleged involvement in atrocities committed in Kosovo during the crackdown on the Serbian province’s majority ethnic Albanian population that ended two years ago.

If extradited, Milosevic would be the first former head of state to face a war crimes trial in front of the U.N. court, established in 1992.

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