Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro Serbia's new prime minister said Saturday that extraditing top suspects to the U.N. war crimes tribunal would not be his top priority, defying U.S. threats to cut aid and crucial political support to the troubled Balkan republic.
Vojislav Kostunica, the former Yugoslav president and a longtime opponent of the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, told The Associated Press that Serbia had more important issues to deal with, like simmering social tensions and a ruined economy.
"We should talk, plead if necessary ... to find a solution that is not black and white and which allows us to survive," said Kostunica, who like many Serbs condemns the U.N. court as anti-Serb. "This country is not a simple deliverer of human goods to The Hague tribunal."
Kostunica's comments will almost certainly anger the United States, which says Serbia must hand over war crimes suspects in order to receive $100 million this year in aid and other support from international financial organizations.
This year, the U.S. Congress for the first time specifically mentioned the arrest of former Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, who was indicted by the U.N. war crimes court for genocide over the killing of about 8,000 men and boys in the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995.
By March 31, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is to decide if Serbia has cooperated with the tribunal to get the planned aid -- crucial for its stalled economy.
Kostunica argued that arrests and extraditions would only strengthen the ultranationalist Radical Party, which has seen a resurgence in recent months and gained the most seats in December parliamentary elections.
He said the government also wouldn't extradite four other Serbian generals indicted by the tribunal in September for atrocities during the Kosovo war. Even Serbia's previous government refused to hand them over because the charges against them were too vague, Kostunica said.
Kostunica became Yugoslav president after helping to oust Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and was opposed when Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's pro-Western government organized Milosevic's extradition to the tribunal in 2001. Djindjic was assassinated a year ago.
Kostunica became Serbia's prime minister designate Friday after turning for support from Milosevic's political party, the Socialists. He is to form a minority government next week.
The Socialists, linked to war crimes and other human rights violations, faded dramatically after Milosevic's fall from the Yugoslav presidency.