BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro — In its harshest terms yet, the European Union on Wednesday blasted Serbia's failure to hand over accused war criminal Gen. Ratko Mladic and broke off talks with the Balkan state aimed at admitting it to the lucrative European fold.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said his government had been unable to find Mladic and had begged him to surrender. The escalating crisis threatened to undermine Kostunica's fragile grasp on power, as his deputy quit in disgust, saying the government had betrayed the country's interests.
The dramatic turn of events Wednesday was set in motion by Belgrade's failure to meet an EU deadline to deliver Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague. Mladic was commander of the Bosnian Serb army during the brutal Balkan war from 1992 to 1995. He was indicted on charges of genocide and other war crimes in 1995 and has been in hiding since.
There have been persistent reports that Mladic was being protected by elements of the state security services, but Kostunica insisted Wednesday that his government had exhausted every effort to capture or force him to surrender. Authorities have succeeded in dismantling Mladic's support network, Kostunica said, and he is isolated, "hiding completely alone."
"It would be in the best interest of everyone for Ratko Mladic to follow the example set by other officers and go to The Hague," the prime minister said in a statement. "This is the first time in the history of our nation that the nation and the people will have to pay for the mistakes of one officer."
EU and Hague officials, however, had clearly lost patience with the Belgrade regime. They said Kostunica had misled them six weeks ago when he promised that Mladic's extradition was imminent.
Carla Del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, accused Kostunica of talking out of both sides of his mouth and said Belgrade's failure to produce Mladic was "a scandal."
At a news conference at The Hague, she said Kostunica's plan to persuade Mladic to surrender voluntarily was "without any shred of a doubt ... completely unrealistic and simply wrong."
Del Ponte contended that Serbian authorities had known where Mladic was at various times this year but that he eluded capture, moving from apartment to apartment thanks to tips from military men still loyal to him.
Serbia has much riding on its aspirations to join the EU, and the cutoff of membership talks had swift fallout.
Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, who led talks with EU officials, resigned. He told Kostunica that the government had "betrayed one of the most important interests" of the Serbian people.
Kostunica's coalition government relies on Labus' pro-Western party for its survival and could fall if other Cabinet ministers allied with Labus follow suit. They said they would decide next week what action to take.
"After a year, we have hit the wall," Labus said at a news conference in Belgrade.
Rejection by the EU may also affect the loose federation of Serbia and the smaller Montenegro, both remnants of the former Yugoslavia. Montenegro has said it wants independence and on May 21 will hold a referendum on the issue.
Senior Montenegrin officials Wednesday said the EU's rebuke of Belgrade would boost their push for independence, perhaps allowing Montenegro to circumvent Serbia and join the EU on its own accord.
"We have an opportunity to take our destiny into our own hands," said Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.
Serbia also stands to lose a portion of U.S. aid as punishment for its failure to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal.
Mladic, who is charged in the 1995 slaughter of as many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, remains a hero to many Serbs, and any move against him risks a nationalistic backlash.
The EU's decision suspends preliminary negotiations with Belgrade that would have enhanced economic and political ties with Europe, with an eye on eventually applying to become a member of the 25-nation group.
Olli Rehn, the EU official in charge of the process, said in Brussels that negotiations could eventually resume, but only with "dramatic improvement" in Serbia's cooperation with the war crimes tribunal -- with the delivery of Mladic to The Hague being the most important.
Special correspondent Cirjakovic reported from Belgrade and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Rome.