BELGRADE, Yugoslavia – The Yugoslav Parliament adopted a bill Thursday that removes legal obstacles for the arrest and extradition of top associates of former President Slobodan Milosevic and other war crimes suspects to the U.N. tribunal.
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said passage of the law should open the way for the renewal of U.S. financial aid, which is on hold until Secretary of State Colin Powell certifies that Yugoslavia is cooperating with the court.
The extradition law — which applies to about 20 suspects hiding in Yugoslavia — was approved by an 80-39 vote in the 138-seat lower parliament chamber. Other deputies were absent. On Wednesday, the 40-seat upper house also passed the law.
Those likely to be extradited first are top Milosevic associates indicted along with the former president in connection with atrocities committed during the 1998-99 crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
They include Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic, a former army commander; Nikola Sainovic, a former security adviser; and Vlajko Stojiljkovic, a former Serbian interior minister.
To satisfy lawmakers from Montenegro, the smaller of Yugoslavia's two republics, the law applies only to suspects already indicted by the U.N. tribunal. Any suspects indicted later would be tried by Yugoslav courts.
The law — which was strongly opposed by allies of Milosevic, who was extradited to the court in the Netherlands last year, envisages the first arrests after publication in the official gazette, within days of passage.
A district court judge would issue warrants and order police to detain suspects. A suspect's transfer to the tribunal would occur within a few weeks, allowing time for appeal.
The law would also give U.N. prosecutors access to archives, witnesses and other sources relevant to investigating war crimes.
Even before passage, Yugoslav Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic, who is in charge of police, predicted quick action on the law.
"It can be expected that all the suspects will be handed over to The Hague tribunal by May 1," Zivkovic said.
Djindjic, who had faced tough opposition from nationalists and supporters of Milosevic for advocating cooperation with the tribunal, said the law will resolve "all the problems we had with The Hague court and the American administration."
The leaders of Serbia, the larger of Yugoslavia's republics, effectively set the country's policy. Djindjic was the key architect of Milosevic's arrest and extradition, which was carried out despite resistance from rivals who said it was unconstitutional because of the lack of a law regulating the delivery of suspects to courts outside Yugoslavia.
Milosevic is now on trial at the court in The Hague for his alleged role in atrocities committed by his troops in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.
The United States has demanded that the other suspects also be handed over to the U.N. court. The U.S. Congress had set a March 31 deadline for economically struggling Yugoslavia to cooperate with the tribunal or lose tens of millions of dollars in financial assistance and U.S. support for loans from international organizations.
With the deadline passed, no U.S. assistance checks can be written for Yugoslavia until Powell certifies the country's compliance.