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Belgrade angry as Hague indicts key Serb figures

BELGRADE -- The United Nations yesterday accused two of Serbia's former top soldiers and its current public security chief of war crimes against Kosovo Albanians in the 1998-99 conflict, drawing a bitter reaction from Belgrade.

Serbia's embattled reform coalition government said the move by The Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, broke a promise backed by Washington not to pile on more indictments.

"One should not expect quick reactions like arrests and extraditions from our side," Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic told state television after the tribunal made the charges public.

The tribunal war crimes were allegedly committed by former armed forces chief of staff Nebojsa Pavkovic, former corps commander Vladimir Lazarevic, former police chief Vlastimir Djordjevic, and the current head of Serbia's public security, Sreten Lukic.

The four had commanded troops and police during Serbia's bid to crush ethnic Albanian separatist guerrillas in the teeth of NATO bombing that took 78 days to drive Serb forces out.

"The accused planned, instigated, ordered, committed, or otherwise aided" crimes, including executions and the deportation of about 800,000 Albanians, the indictment said.

Zivkovic said he had refused to sign for the indictment when del Ponte handed it to him during a recent visit.

"We had a general agreement with Mrs. del Ponte . . . that there will be no more indictments on the basis of chain-of-command responsibility," he said.

In the eyes of many Serbs -- not only hard-liners who detest the tribunal and oppose cooperation with it -- Pavkovic and Lazarevic are honorable soldiers who led their men during an onslaught by the NATO allies.

Lukic has the backing of Zivkovic, who called him "a real professional" who had amply proved his commitment to reforms.

Zivkovic said there was a "gentleman's agreement" with the United States and del Ponte that if Bosnian Serb wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, now top fugitives, were handed over, any other cases could be dealt with at home.

Speaking after the indictment was unsealed, US war crimes envoy Pierre-Richard Prosper told Serbia's Beta agency that the arrest of Mladic would "completely change the circumstances" and lift an "enormous weight off the shoulders" of Belgrade.

"As far as the US is concerned, it can deal with the rest in front of the local judiciary," he said.

Serbian authorities have denied they are harboring Mladic, a charge del Ponte has made regularly. "This is very unpleasant for the government and the police and the army," said Bozidar Prelevic, former adviser to the interior minister. "They thought they had an agreement."

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