Serb extremists rally over Karadzic

July 29, 2008 12:37:21 PM PDT
Singing nationalist songs and waving posters of their "Serb Hero," thousands of Serb extremists protested Tuesday in downtown Belgrade against the government's plan to extradite ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to the U.N. war crimes tribunal. Riot police deployed across the capital and heavily armed anti-terrorist troops guarded the U.S. embassy as busloads of ultranationalists arrived from all over Serbia and Bosnia for the anti-government rally dubbed "Freedom for Serbia."

Many protesters carried banners and wore badges with Karadzic's name and picture. Some chanted slogans against President Boris Tadic and called for his death.

Still, police estimated Tuesday's turnout at only around 15,000 people - much less than organizers had expected. The last major nationalist rally, in February after Kosovo's declaration of independence, drew 150,000 people and led to an attack on the U.S. embassy amid a chaotic, violent looting spree.

Aleksandar Vucic, leader of the Serbian Radical Party that organized the rally, called for Tadic's government to be overthrown.

"Thank you for showing that Serbia is not dead, although it is being killed by Boris Tadic," Vucic told the crowd. "Thieves and bandits are ruling Serbia."

"We will fight for Serbia and Serbia will be free," he added, to thunderous applause and chants of "Uprising, Uprising!"

Karadzic had spent nearly 13 years on the run before being arrested last week in Belgrade, only a few weeks after Tadic's government came to power. He is still revered by many as a wartime hero for helping to create the Bosnian Serb mini-state.

Luka Karadzic told the crowd his brother should be tried in Serbia, and not at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

"It is still not too late to prevent Karadzic's extradition to The Hague," he said.

Tuesday's protest was seen a test case for Tadic's government, which is much more pro-Western than its predecessor. Tadic earlier had warned the right-wing extremists to remain peaceful.

"Everyone has the right to demonstrate, but they should know that law and order will be respected," Tadic said.

The U.S. Embassy had predicted that up to 100,000 protesters could show up and advised Americans to avoid downtown Belgrade. The embassy was heavily guarded during the rally by special anti-terrorist troops armed with machine guns wearing masks.

In February's mass rally, the U.S. Embassy was partly burned and protesters went on a looting spree, smashing shops and McDonald's restaurants in Belgrade. Those protesters were angry that the U.S. had recognized Kosovo, a former region in Serbia, as an independent country.

Karadzic faces 11 charges at the U.N. tribunal, including genocide and conspiracy to commit genocide. He is accused of masterminding the 1995 slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica and the more than three-year siege of Sarajevo, which left 10,000 people dead.

It remained unclear Tuesday whether Karadzic's lawyer had actually filed an appeal against his extradition to the U.N. war crimes tribunal.

"We have not received the appeal," Serb war crimes court's spokeswoman Ivana Ramic said at the end of court hours Tuesday. Karadzic's lawyer claimed he sent the appeal by registered mail before a midnight Friday deadline. But the postal service said it doesn't have it and Ramic said the court doesn't either.

Under Serbian law, if the appeal is not filed or does not arrive, the court's investigative judge can rule to extradite Karadzic to U.N. tribunal without considering Karadzic's objection. In a sign that Karadzic anticipated a quick handover to the U.N.

tribunal, his nephew Dragan Karadzic was seen Tuesday bringing two large suitcases into the Belgrade prison for his uncle.

Serbia's new, pro-Western government hopes that Karadzic's arrest will strengthen the country's bid for EU membership. Serbia had been accused of not searching for war crimes fugitives sought by the U.N. tribunal.

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Associated Press writers Jovana Gec and Katarina Kratovac contributed to this report.

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