VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria will not extradite to Serbia a former Bosnian army general arrested last week on a Serbian warrant demanding he face war crimes charges, the foreign ministry said on Monday.
Austrian police arrested Jovan Divjak at Vienna airport on Thursday, triggering protests in Sarajevo and Vienna at the weekend.
“According to our international law experts, an extradition to Serbia is inconceivable,” Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told the Kurier newspaper.
A ministry spokesman confirmed the comments, which he described as “a signal towards the people of Bosnia.” He said extradition requests had to take into account Austria’s foreign policy interests, international law and other factors.
Spindelegger cancelled a planned trip to Sarajevo on Monday due to illness but hoped to meet his Bosnian counterpart within days either there or in Vienna, the spokesman added.
Still popular in Bosnia, Divjak is one of a group of 19 Bosnian officials charged by Serbia over an attack on a Yugoslav army column in Sarajevo early in the 1992-95 war.
Serb prosecutors say 42 Yugoslav soldiers were killed and 73 wounded in May 1992 when the Bosnian army attacked the convoy after it had been offered safe passage and was being escorted out of the city by U.N. troops.
Yugoslav army General Milutin Kukanjac, who had ordered the withdrawal of his forces from Sarajevo, has said that only six people were killed that day.
The United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague has dropped the case due to lack of evidence.
A British court, which last year arrested Bosnia’s wartime presidency member Ejup Ganic on the same warrant from Serbia, released him, saying the charges were unfounded.
Divjak, an ethnic Serb who defected from the former Yugoslav People’s Army after it bombed Sarajevo in April 1992 and joined Bosnian forces, is seen as a hero in Sarajevo, which Bosnian Serb forces besieged for 43 months.
On Saturday, around 5,000 people protested peacefully in the Bosnian capital demanding his release from Austrian custody.
Divjak is the third Bosnian high-ranking official arrested outside the country on Serbian warrants for crimes committed on Bosnian territory during the 1992-95 war.
The issue of unresolved war crimes committed in the Balkan wars of the 1990s burdens relations among the former Yugoslav republics.
Reporting by Michael Shields; Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo