The European Union warned Croatia on Wednesday that it must speed up the prosecution of war crimes, especially against ethnic Croats, and take urgent steps to better protect minorities. In its annual report on Croatia's candidacy for EU membership, the European Commission said Zagreb authorities must "substantially improve the prosecution of war crimes trials, in particular by ensuring an end to the ethnic bias against Serbs," who constitute a minority in the Balkan country.
The European Union decided last month to open membership talks with Croatia, but only after chief U.N. war crimes tribunal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte assured EU officials that the government in Zagreb was cooperating fully with efforts to bring a war crimes suspect to trial.
However, the bloc's executive commission said Croatia still needs to improve the handling of war crimes cases.
"The experience of locally initiated war crimes trials leaves a lot to be desired," the progress report said.
EU membership talks with Croatia were to start in March, but the bloc froze the negotiations over Zagreb's failure to cooperate with the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, which had indicted former Croat Gen. Ante Gotovina for wartime atrocities against Serbs.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said: "Croatia must maintain full cooperation" with the U.N. court.
Del Ponte's favorable comments last month were a breakthrough, and the progress report did not return to those issues.
Croatian officials have raised hopes that the country can join the EU in 2009. Officials are now screening legislation needed to quality for membership, a process that could take up a year before formal talks can begin.
In the report released Wednesday, the European Commission focused on Croatia's handling of war crimes cases resulting from the Balkan wars of the 1990s that broke up former Yugoslavia, the AP says.
The report said different standards were applied, "with Serbs pursued in large numbers for less serious offenses while Croats are pursued almost exclusively for killings."
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