updated 1/19/2006 1:02:19 PM ET 2006-01-19T18:02:19

Top war crimes suspect Gen. Ratko Mladic is hiding in Serbia, under protection from the Serbian army, the chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor said Thursday.

Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte rejected reports that Mladic had fled to Russia to hide from attempts to capture him and transfer him to the war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands.

“Mladic is in Serbia, Mladic is protected by power of the army,” Del Ponte told reporters after she met with European Union officials. “What I need is an ... obligation from Belgrade to arrest him and deliver him to The Hague.”

Del Ponte said her assertion was based on information she had received, but she did not offer other details.

She also said she wanted to start Mladic’s trial in July along with the other eight suspects charged with genocide during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.

Both Mladic and the other top war crimes suspect, Radovan Karadic, another former Bosnian Serb leader, have been sought for more than a decade by the U.N. court, indicted for the 1995 massacre of about 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica — Europe’s worst carnage since World War II — and for other war crimes during the war.

EU relations at stake
Del Ponte’s remarks came as she met with Olli Rehn, the European Union’s commissioner in charge of expansion.

Rehn warned that the Belgrade’s path to closer relations with the EU and possible membership in the bloc could be frozen if it does not cooperate fully with Del Ponte.

In particular, he said the EU could halt talks with Serbia on a so-called stability and association agreement, which would give Serbia much needed financial aid to boost economic and political reforms to ready it for possible EU membership.

“Suspension of negotiations is certainly one alternative, and I expect that the Serbian government will take this message very seriously,” Rehn said. “Serbia has to chose now between its nationalist past and a European future.”

Del Ponte also held talks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO’s Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to push for the two organizations to put added pressure on Serbia to hand over the fugitives.

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