The European Union has accused Croatia of deliberately failing to act to arrest a fugitive general whose fate is central to the country's EU membership bid.
Gotovina's arrest is crucial for Croatia's EU membership talks
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said that Croatia could, if all went well, join the EU in 2009. But much hinges on whether Ante Gotovina is produced to face war-crimes charges at The Hague.
Rehn issued his starkest warning yet that the EU would postpone a March date to launch entry talks with Zagreb if the retired general is not delivered to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
The Finnish commissioner said he was "convinced that if the Croatian government had the political will to locate and transfer General Gotovina, it could do so."
Rehn (photo) said that based on information from UN chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte and other "very informed sources," Croatia and Gotovina have discussed a "possible voluntary surrender of General Gotovina which did not materialize."
Gotovina was also most probably sheltering in Croatia or Croatian areas of Bosnia-Hercegovina, "in any case within the reach of the Croatian government," he added.
Croatian premier surprised
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader voiced surprise over the threat to postpone the start of entry talks, rejecting the allegation that the government had had contacts with Gotovina.
"I am not worried but surprised," Sanader told Croatian national radio speaking from Luxembourg. "Croatia is fully cooperating with the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague."
Information that the government had held talks with Gotovina was "not true," said the prime minister (photo), adding he was confident accession talks would begin as scheduled on March 17.
Gotovina's lawyer Luka Misetic said earlier this month that his client would surrender if his case was transferred to a Croatian court, a deal immediately dismissed by UN prosecutors and by Zagreb.
EU ready to postpone talks
Releasing the EU executive's proposed plan of accession negotiations with Croatia, Rehn said that Zagreb would not today be considered as deserving of EU talks.
"If the commission were to give its recommendation on the basis of today's information, I could not recommend opening negotiations with Croatia," he told a news conference. "If there is no progress from the Croatian side (on Gotovina), we are ready to postpone the start of talks."
At a December summit, EU leaders said the bloc would start accession talks with Croatia on March 17 -- provided it cooperates fully with the ICTY.
That means finding and handing over Gotovina, who went into hiding in 2001 when the UN court charged him with war crimes against ethnic Serbs at the end of Croatia's 1991-95 war of independence from the former Yugoslavia.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn of the EU's current presidency said the bloc's decision on whether to proceed with talks from March 17 would depend in large part on the ICTY's appraisal.
"Every step must go perfectly"
Confirming the receipt of a letter "from an individual claiming to be Mr Gotovina's lawyer," he said the issue of Croatia would be discussed when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Luxembourg on Feb. 9 and 10.
"If tomorrow Mr Gotovina turns up in The Hague, that's that and we can start earlier," Asselborn said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers. "But until that happens, March 17 is a buffer date for the start of the negotiations with Croatia."
Cathedral square in Croatia's capital, Zagreb
Like any other EU candidate, Croatia will have to strive hard to transpose the 80,000 pages of EU legislation and standards known as the "acquis communautaire."
Rehn proposed to EU member states that the accession negotiations be broken down into 35 chapters and the talks be conducted chapter by chapter. "To meet 2009, every step must go perfectly," he said.