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updated 1/10/2011 1:53:14 PM ET 2011-01-10T18:53:14

Croatia demanded urgent clarification Monday from Serbia over the arrest of a former independence fighter wanted by Belgrade for alleged war crimes — the incident that threatens to re-ignite tensions between the two wartime foes.

Tomislav Purda was detained at the border between Bosnia and Croatia on Jan. 5 on a Serbian arrest warrant for allegedly committing crimes against ethnic Serbs during the 1991 clashes in Vukovar, the eastern Croatian town considered the symbol of the Croatian fight for independence from the Serb-led Yugoslavia.

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The jailed Croat is now awaiting legal procedure in Bosnia to be extradited to Serbia.

"We want the legal state to function," Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said. "But, we don't want Croatia's defenders of freedom and democracy to suffer."

Kosor also discussed Purda's arrest with Serbian President Boris Tadic. The two agreed that their justice ministers will look at the matter and also exchange lists of people each country suspects of having committed war crimes, Kosor's office said.

Serbia's Justice Minister Snezana Malovic indicated later Monday that Serbia would be willing to hand over the case to Croatia's judiciary.

"It doesn't matter whose judiciary handles the case," Malovic said. "What matters is that no one involved in war crimes escapes unpunished."

The Serb-Croat relations — considered crucial for the stability of Balkans — had shown signs of improvement following their bloody 1991-95 war. Their leaders recently exchanged apologies for wartime crimes, and signed a series of economic and political deals.

But Purda's arrest has reviewed memories of one of the more traumatic episodes of that war. Some 2,000 Croats were killed and 200 POWs were dragged from Vukovar's hospital after the town fell in 1991, and were then executed by rebel Serbs at a pig farm.

"Heroes Wanted," a leading Vecernji List daily splashed Monday, quoting one of the Vukovar wartime commanders, Branko Borkovic, as saying that the case against Purda is "as if someone would charge Jews killed in Dachau."

Bruno Vekaric, Serbia's deputy war crimes prosecutor, denied Croatian media reports that the secret list of Croats wanted by Serbia includes 300 names. He said Serbia is prosecuting only a "couple of cases."

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The Serbian prosecutors, however, said Monday that "evidence exists" that Purda committed crimes against ethnic Serbs during the clashes in Vukovar in 1991. No details of the charges were published.

The case has created fears among both the Serbs and Croats crossing the border between the two neighbors.

For years now, numerous Croatian Serbs, who fled the country in 1995 when Zagreb retook areas seized by the rebels in 1991, were detained while returning to Croatia. Others have been advised to check in the Croatian Embassy in Belgrade whether they are on the wanted list.

"It shows that the improvement of relations between the two states cannot stop at symbolical gestures," said Boris Raseta, a Croatian political analyst. "They have to make concrete actions, day by day,"

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Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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