Church leaders in the Balkans have warned that the extradition of alleged war criminals to the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague risks "creating martyrs," and cautioned against using recent cases to suggest all Balkan people are "equally guilty."

"We in Croatia must accept guilt for bad things in our people's history, and our church will contribute to this [effort]," said Bishop Vlado Kosic, Roman Catholic co-chairman of Croatia's Ecumenical Coordinating Committee of Churches. "But many believe the international community shares the blame for what happened. It will be quite wrong to use these extraditions to suggest we are all morally equivalent."

The bishop's comments came after the Croatian government handed over two generals for alleged crimes against Serb civilians during the 1991-95 war.

Croatian newspapers said the generals—whose names have not been released—had been implicated in a massacre at Medak and a mass killing during the Croatian army's reoccupation of Serb-occupied Krajina and western Slavonia.

However, four government ministers from the nationalist Social-Liberal Party resigned in protest of Croatia's handing over of the men. The decision came less than two weeks after ex-president Slobodan Milosevic was handed over by neighboring Serbia.

Kosic said the decision to hand over Croatian generals was "hard to accept for people deeply convinced that Croatia did nothing wrong, and that their nation was only the victim of a great enemy with all forceful means at its disposal."

Croatia's predominant Roman Catholic Church believes "law and justice" should be applied to all wrongdoers, he said, but opposes the notion of "collective guilt."

Kosic added that the generals' alleged crimes were "an exception," not the rule. He said church leaders would resist any attempts to excuse the alleged crimes by saying "all nations are the same."

"There's a consensus here that Milosevic was the aggressor, and that his policies were the root cause of everything that happened," the 42-year-old bishop said.

The Baptist secretary of the Ecumenical Coordinating Committee of Churches, Boris Peterlin, said he believed the generals would be widely seen as martyrs.

"There's no moral problem here—if Croatia wants to relinquish the heritage of the past and work towards democratization, there's no other option" than to extradite those charged with war crimes, Peterlin said.

"But public opinion is heavily shaped by the previous system and has created a mythology around military people. There's a tendency to identify with them and justify everything they did."

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Similar doubts about the advisability of extradition were voiced by church leaders in Yugoslavia, whose former president, Slobodan Milosevic, was flown to the Hague on June 28 after two months' detention in Belgrade's central prison.

In a June 29 statement, Yugoslavia's predominant Serbian Orthodox Church said President Vojislav Kostunica informed Patriarch Pavle that Milosevic's extradition caused "a political crisis and tense situation."

It added that the president had pledged to "preserve peace and unity in the state" while ensuring that "after so many long-lasting temptations, we should not be in the position of facing new ones."

Secretary of Yugoslavia's Evangelical Baptist Church, Dragica Armus, said he agreed with Kostunica that a Yugoslav court should have tried Milosevic. He believes Western leaders should also face charges for the 1999 NATO bombing campaign.

The head of Serbia's Roman Catholic Jesuit order, Father Lorant Kilbertus, advised Christians "to pray for Milosevic, rather than just condemning him."

In his televised appearance on July 3 before the tribunal, where he stands accused of inciting the mass murder of Albanians in Kosovo, Milosevic refused to accept a defense lawyer, and accused the "illegal tribunal" of seeking "to justify NATO crimes in Yugoslavia."

Although several thousand supporters staged protests in Belgrade, an early July opinion poll by Yugoslavia's Social Science Institute suggested 71 percent of citizens supported the handover.

Croatia's premier, Ivica Raczak, said his government had agreed to hand over the generals despite "certain reservations" about the Hague tribunal's "interpretation of history," adding that Croatia would have faced economic sanctions for failing to cooperate.

"Many people doubt [the generals] will get a fair trial," Peterlin said. "They feel the tribunal is too concerned with political deliberations about the character of war, and not enough with criminal justice."

The generals will be the first Croatian citizens to face formal tribunal charges.

The Croatian president, Stipe Mesic, defended the extraditions in an July 8 national TV statement. He said his country could not be "held hostage by those whose blood-stained hands cast a shadow over Croatia's good name."

Related Elsewhere

The official UN site for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia includes the latest news, a list of cases, basic legal documents and publications.

Croatia's government faces continuing demands to stop cooperating with the U.N. war crimes tribunal.

Republic of Croatia's official site includes general information on the country, as well as politics, culture, and history sections.

PBS' Online Newshour examines Milosevic's arrest and trial.

Jurist legal education network also has extensive articles and legal documents in the Milosevic case.

For more articles, see Yahoo's full coverage on Yugoslavia and Croatia.