(New York) - The Bush administration should honor the March 31 deadline to cut off U.S. economic assistance to Yugoslavia, unless Belgrade cooperates fully with the war crimes court in The Hague, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a February 23 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Powell, Human Rights Watch pointed out that Yugoslav authorities had failed to arrest and hand over any of the Serb and Yugoslav officials, including former President Slobodan Milosevic, who have been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The U.S. Congress laid down strict guidelines in the 2001 Foreign Operations Assistance Act, prohibiting the U.S. government from continuing aid to Belgrade unless Yugoslavia cooperates with the tribunal, including "the surrender and transfer of indictees or assistance in their apprehension." According to the legislation, the Bush administration must decide by March 31, 2001 whether to halt U.S. aid.

Although Yugoslav authorities seem poised to arrest former President Milosevic, Human Rights Watch said that his arrest and possible trial for corruption in Belgrade would not in any way constitute cooperation with the international tribunal in The Hague.

"Now that the arrest of Milosevic seems imminent, the U.S. government must be firmer than ever about the need to cooperate with the international tribunal," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "This would be the worst possible moment to relax the conditions on U.S. aid. The Bush administration must send a clear message to the authorities in Belgrade, that no money except humanitarian aid will flow from Washington until they start handing over indictees to The Hague."

Along with former President Milosevic, four senior Yugoslav and Serb officials and former officials have been charged with crimes against humanity committed by troops under their command in Kosovo in early 1999. During that period, their forces conducted a brutal campaign in which thousands of ethnic Albanians were killed and more than 800,000 were forced out of the province. On many occasions, groups of ethnic Albanians were systematically executed by Serbian special police or paramilitaries.

In addition to the five charged with crimes against humanity in Kosovo, three Yugoslav Army officials remain at liberty in Yugoslavia despite their indictment on charges relating to the capture of Vukovar in Croatia in November 1991. At Vukovar, more than 250 Croats were seized from a hospital and slaughtered. One of these officers is still serving in Yugoslavia's Army.

Former Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic is living in Belgrade. Radovan Karadzic, formerly president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, is also at large and believed to have traveled to Yugoslavia in recent months. These two were charged with genocide in connection with the massacre of 7,000 Bosnian men after the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, the largest single killing in Europe since World War II.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has argued that transferring indictees to The Hague would "destabilize" his new, more democratic government in Belgrade. In fact, said Human Rights Watch, allowing the indictees to remain at liberty will only encourage the most violent and lawless elements in Serbia. Human Rights Watch's own research in Bosnia and Croatia has shown that the transfer of indictees to the Hague can facilitate democracy and be a first step toward greater stability in the region.

The record of Croatia's cooperation with the Tribunal under late president Tudjman also demonstrates the importance of a principled U.S. stance on the issue. Twelve Bosnian Croats surrendered to the Tribunal in 1997 as a result of the U.S. threat to veto International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans to the country. The 2001 Foreign Operations Assistance Act stipulates similar conditionality for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

"A forceful U.S. position on Croatia's cooperation with the Tribunal was instrumental to the transfer of indictees to the Hague," said Cartner. "Nothing less is required in U.S. relations with Yugoslavia. U.S. law is unambiguous on this point, and the new U.S. administration must be unambiguous, too."