Vatican accused of shielding 'war criminal'

The Hague, Holland - One of the most wanted war criminals is being shielded by the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican hierarchy, the United Nations' chief prosecutor for former Yugoslavia said yesterday.

Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the UN international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said she believed that Gen Ante Gotovina was being sheltered in a Franciscan monastery in his native Croatia.

The Vatican could probably pinpoint exactly which of Croatia's 80 monasteries was sheltering him "in a few days", Mrs del Ponte told The Daily Telegraph at her offices in The Hague.

Instead, she had been "extremely disappointed" to encounter a wall of silence from the Vatican. Frustrated by months of secret but fruitless appeals to leading Vatican officials, including a direct appeal to Pope Benedict XVI, Mrs del Ponte has decided to make the matter public.

Gen Gotovina, still regarded as a hero by many Croats, is the most important war crimes suspect still at large from the Yugoslav conflict, after the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Gen Ratko Mladic.

She said: "I have information he is hiding in a Franciscan monastery and so the Catholic Church is protecting him. I have taken this up with the Vatican and the Vatican refuses totally to co-operate with us."

In July, Mrs del Ponte travelled to Rome to share her intelligence with the Vatican's ''foreign minister'', Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo.

He refused to help, telling her the Vatican was not a state and thus had "no international obligations" to help the UN to hunt war criminals.

Mrs del Ponte complained: "They said they have no intelligence and I don't believe that. I think that the Catholic Church has the most advanced intelligence services."

Gen Gotovina, 49, has been a fugitive since 2001 when he was indicted on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. America has placed a £2.8 million bounty on his head.

A former French foreign legion officer, he is accused of overseeing and permitting the killing of at least 150 Serb civilians and the forced deportation of between 150,000 and 200,000 others after Operation Storm, a 1995 offensive to reimpose Croatian control over the Krajina region. Gen Gotovina's whereabouts are of interest not only to lawyers and historians. They are at the heart of a political mystery that has divided the European Union.

In February, the Balkan intrigue took a poisonous turn for Britain when the general's allies inside Croat intelligence "outed" several war crimes investigators in Croatia as serving MI6 and United States intelligence officers.

The next month, Britain led a successful campaign to halt the planned opening of talks with Croatia on joining the EU. Those accession talks remain on hold until Croatia is found to be "fully co-operating" with the tribunal, an assessment to be made by Mrs del Ponte.

In the past few days, Austria, Croatia's most fervent supporter within the EU, launched a fresh attempt to demand that the Balkan nation be allowed to begin accession talks early next month.

The Croatian authorities have promised to raid any monastery sheltering Gen Gotovina. But Mrs del Ponte feels little closer to catching him, largely because of the Vatican's refusal to help. Archbishop Lajolo had even refused an appeal for the Vatican to act as a secret back-channel of communication to the Croatian Church, she said. "I asked to have an interlocutor in the Vatican, so I can share the information that I have, but no, no possibility."

Mrs del Ponte survived a Mafia assassination attempt during her career as a Swiss federal prosecutor. She now works in The Hague, protected by armed UN guards.

As a Roman Catholic, she said she was "doubly disappointed" by the Vatican. She asked the Vatican to repudiate a recent statement by Mile Bogovic, the Bishop of Gospic and Senj, denouncing the tribunal as a "political court" determined to distort Croatia's past, and referring to Gen Gotovina as "a symbol of victory".

Archbishop Lajolo told her that the Holy See had no direct authority over individual bishops.

She added: "Mgr Lajolo said to me: 'Let me know in which monastery Gotovina is hiding.' I said, if I knew, I would not be here in Rome."

Mrs del Ponte finally wrote to the Pope directly. Several weeks later, she has received no reply.

At the Vatican, Monsignor Maurizio Bravi, the private secretary to Archbishop Lajolo, confirmed that the meeting with Mrs del Ponte had taken place. But he said: "I cannot give you any information on this."

Back in The Hague, Mrs del Ponte was asked if she felt the Church was motivated by historic links to the Croatian nationalist cause or out of a desire to avoid the secular world. "I don't want to envisage an answer to your question," she said. "But my disappointment is big."