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BRUSSELS, Belgium: Britain and the Netherlands said Wednesday the European Union would delay the start of membership talks with Croatia because Zagreb has failed to surrender a Croatian former general to the U.N. war crimes tribunal for trial.
Entry negotiations had been scheduled to start on Thursday.
But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said "our judgment is that it cannot take place from tomorrow, because a key precondition for the beginning of the negotiations was full cooperation with the international criminal tribunal in the Hague, and I regret that the evidence is that Croatia has not cooperated as fully as we would wish.''
Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, speaking before an EU foreign ministers' meeting to discuss the issue, said: "There will be a negative decision. We need a clear signal Croatia is cooperating with the war crimes tribunal.''
The EU is now expected to tell Zagreb that entry talks will start as soon as Zagreb delivers former Gen. Ante Gotovina for trial at the U.N. court in The Hague, Netherlands.
Gotovina faces charges of killing 150 Serbs and expelling 150,000 others during Croatia's 1995 offensive to recapture land seized by Serb rebels following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
EU leaders decided in December to start entry negotiations with Croatia on March 17.
But 21 of the 25 EU nations want the date put back because U.N. chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte says Croatia is not doing enough to track down Gotovina, even though he is "within reach'' of the authorities in Zagreb. The decision to start membership talks require unanimity.
"The conditions (of full cooperation with the war crimes tribunal) must be met'' before Croatia can start negotiating EU entry terms, said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who was chairing the meeting.
Asselborn said Croatia will be assured that "negotiations will open as soon possible once the conditions'' are met.
On the eve of the EU meeting, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said Gotovina _ considered a hero by many in Croatia _ was no longer in the country, and therefore his government could not extradite him.
Only Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia wanted negotiations with Croatia to start as planned, arguing that Zagreb has made the necessary economic and political reforms to qualify for membership talks.
"It's a matter of fairness. I will make an effort to see that negotiations can start,'' said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik. "My motto ... is 'Fairness for Croatia'.''
Croatia applied in 2003 to join the EU, hoping to join as early as 2007.
Its application has long been hampered by Del Ponte's charge that Zagreb is shielding Gotovina.
Her 2001 indictment says Croatian forces plundered the Krajina region in 1995 and murdered and deported large numbers of Croat Serbs.
Gotovina and Franjo Tudjman, who was president at the time, ran "a joint criminal enterprise, the common purpose of which was the forcible and permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region, including by the plunder, damage or outright destruction of the property of the Serb population'' to prevent it from returning, according to the indictment.
Del Ponte charged the former general with "crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war.'' She has also told the EU that Gotovina is being protected by Croatian officials.
That view is not widely shared in the European Parliament.
Zagreb's entry negotiations talks are being delayed unfairly, said Doris Pack, a German Christian democrat and chairwoman of the EU assembly's South-East Europe delegation.
"The western world does not want at all to capture the Croatian war criminal, Ante Gotovina, because if a capture was successful then negotiations with Croatia would have to begin,'' she said ahead of the EU meeting. "The current crisis does not concern at all the person of Gotovina, but is a pretext in order to prevent Zagreb from joining the EU for the time being.''
Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden are the most ardent opponents to starting talks on Thursday. - AP
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