The UN war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor has accused the Vatican of failing to help -- or at least not hinder -- the hunt for a fugitive Croatian general accused of overseeing the killing of 150 Serbs, her office said Tuesday.
Carla del Ponte's spokeswoman said General Ante Gotovina, who has remained at large since mid-2001, was believed to be receiving support from a network of Catholic monasteries in Croatia.
If church officials "would give orders not to harbor war crimes suspects, if they would assist justice, fugitives wouldn't find protection in monasteries," Del Ponte's spokeswoman Florence Hartmann said.
Hartmann added that Del Ponte sent letters to the Vatican and met with top church officials this summer requesting that the church reprimand Croatian Bishop Mile Bogovic, who publicly called Gotovina a hero and said his prosecution was politically motivated.
Del Ponte's pleas went unanswered, Hartmann said.
In a written response, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo -- the Vatican's foreign minister -- had asked Del Ponte for evidence that Gotovina was hiding in church buildings. Lajolo said that if Del Ponte had proof, the church would "make contact with the competent ecclesiastical authorities."
But he said Del Ponte never provided more information, and was trying improperly to use the Vatican as an enforcement tool.
Del Ponte spokeswoman Hartmann said it should be up to the church to censure members who support suspected war criminals.
Catholic, Christian Orthodox and Muslim leaders "have a responsibility in the end to protect the weak, the victims. Glorifying killers is contrary to all religious teaching, as far as I remember," Hartmann said.
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said on Tuesday that "based on all the information we're getting, Gotovina is not in Croatia."
Sanader said anyone accused of harboring suspects should appear before the court "but it's another thing whether what she [Del Ponte] said is true and what are the basis for her claims. Is it just her wish or a statement based on information?"
Tips last year that Gotovina was hiding at a monastery had been unfounded, Interior Ministry spokesman Zlatko Mehun said.
The Croatian government claims Gotovina has fled the country.
Gotovina, one of seven remaining tribunal fugitives, is indicted on eight charges including persecution and murder allegedly committed at the end of the 1991-95 war in Croatia.
Del Ponte's criticism was a "completely uncharacteristic, unfounded and indiscriminate allegation against the Church and even Pope Benedict XVI," said Anton Suljic, a spokesman for the Croatian Bishop's Conference.
The church "has no knowledge or indication on the whereabouts of fugitive General Gotovina," Suljic said.
Gotovina, 48, is viewed by many Croatians as a hero for his role in retaking land seized by ethnic Serbs.
The Hague court indicted Gotovina with masterminding the killing of at least 150 Serbs and the expulsion of 150,000 others during Croatia's 1995 offensive to recapture lands seized by rebel Serbs, who opposed the country's independence from the former Yugoslav federation.
In March, the EU said it will not begin membership talks with Croatia until it captures Gotovina and extradites him to The Hague.