The EU told Serbia on Monday that it had a month to deliver war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic to justice or risk seeing its long-term bid to join the bloc put on ice.
One of the top two war crimes suspects in the Balkans, Mladic has been a wanted man since 1995 and is said to have enjoyed high-level protection from renegade members of the military and intelligence services in Serbia.
"It is high time Serbia reached full cooperation with ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] that should lead to the arrest and transfer of Ratko Mladic," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told a news conference.
"That is the way to avoid a disruption of negotiations, to avoid them being put on hold," Rehn said, noting complaints from ICTY chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte that Serbia's cooperation with her tribunal had been deteriorating over the past year.
Diplomats said a final statement by foreign ministers warned only that talks risked being "disrupted" rather than suspended so as not to encourage anti-EU figures in Belgrade who wanted just that outcome.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters the 25-nation EU would adopt a "go-slow" approach to future contacts with Belgrade, which could start with the cancelation of a next round of talks due on April 4-5.
"If Serbia continues to fail to cooperate, then it risks a total suspension of the talks," Straw said.
Meanwhile, Serbia's deputy prime minister expressed hope Monday that war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic will be arrested before the EU's deadline.
The next round of talks with the EU was set for April 5, Serbia's deputy prime Minister Miroljub Labus told private B-92 radio, expressing "hope" Mladic would be in The Hague by then.
"Now, it all depends on the capability of the [security] services," Labus said. "They were given a clear mandate by the government" to arrest Mladic.
Serbia's President Boris Tadic said that "regardless of various opinions in Serbia about The Hague court ... Serbia has to fulfill its obligations" toward the international tribunal.
Belgrade has opened initial talks with the EU on establishing closer ties with the 25-nation bloc, which would prepare Serbia to move toward full membership.
If the EU suspends the talks indefinitely, Serbia would plunge into international isolation reminiscent of the Slobodan Milosevic era and move further from coveted EU membership, Labus said.
Contradictory statements in Belgrade last week generated confusion about how close authorities were to capturing Mladic, including reports that he had already been arrested.
Labus said that he did not know the whereabouts of Mladic, adding that he was getting all his information from Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
"I believe him," Labus said. "I'm not in touch with the security services."
Mladic and the other top fugitive from Bosnia's war, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, were indicted in 1995 on charges of orchestrating the massacre of some 8,000 Muslims in the UN enclave of Srebrenica -- Europe's worst carnage since World War II.
Mladic is believed to be hiding in Serbia under protection of the hard-liners in the Serb military and police -- loyalists of the former autocratic President Milosevic, who was ousted in 2000 by a reformist coalition. Karadzic reportedly has been hiding and moving between Bosnia, Serbia and even his native Montenegro.