U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said yesterday that the arrests of those charged with crimes in the countries that once made up Yugoslavia will be her highest priority in the coming year and that she plans to press the matter during visits to NATO capitals next month.

"I plan to be very active on this issue, because everything depends upon indicted persons being arrested and brought to trial," Del Ponte said in a statement issued at The Hague.

Marking her first 100 days as chief prosecutor for the tribunals investigating war crimes in the Balkans and in Rwanda, the former Swiss government prosecutor said she expects the work of the courts to continue until the end of 2004.

Although the Balkan tribunal has issued public indictments charging 92 individuals, as well as an unknown number of sealed indictments, it has cited repeated difficulty in obtaining their arrests. Most of the indictees are Bosnian Serbs who allegedly participated in crimes against Muslims as the old Yugoslav federation broke apart in the early 1990s. Over the past four years,SFOR, the NATO-led international force in Bosnia, has arrested only 14 of the indictees, most recently Bosnian Serb Maj. Gen. Stanislav Galic last week. Others among the 35 men currently in tribunal custody surrendered voluntarily or were arrested by national forces in other countries.

Among those still at large are Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four senior associates charged with crimes relating to the expulsion and killing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo this year, and Bosnian Serb leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, both of whom have been charged with genocide. Only Karadzic is believed to be in Bosnian territory controlled by SFOR--allegedly in the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale, which is in the French sector. U.S. officials have complained of French reluctance to move against him, although tribunal sources said they believe U.S. finger-pointing masks general reluctance by SFOR, which also includes U.S. and British forces, to consider the arrest of indictees an important part of its mandate in Bosnia.

In a change from her two predecessors as chief prosecutor, Del Ponte said she expects to devote half her time in the coming year to the Rwanda tribunal. It is charged with investigating and prosecuting those responsible for war crimes committed in 1994, when hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by Hutus. The Rwanda court, located in neighboring Tanzania, has been mired in political and judicial controversy and has thus far completed only four trials of the 48 individuals currently in its custody.

After a months-long review of its operations, Del Ponte said the cases of those in custody would be divided into three major genocide prosecutions involving key figures in the former Hutu government, the military and the media. She said she would personally lead the prosecution team in the government case, which would begin in February. "I am determined to spend a considerable portion of my time on [Rwanda tribunal] business," Del Ponte said. "The year 2000 will be a big year" for that court.

But most of her lengthy statement was devoted to the Yugoslav tribunal. In addition to pressing for more action on arrests, Del Ponte said she will continue to appeal to the U.N. Security Council to move against the government of Croatia for obstructing the court's work. Prosecutors have long been investigating the actions of Croatian forces against Serbs in the Krajina region of Croatia in 1995, but the Croatian government has refused to respond to requests for information.

The tribunal began complaining early this year to the Security Council, which has appeared reluctant to sanction Croatia. Declaring she was "surprised" that action has not been taken, Del Ponte said it is "imperative that the Security Council, our parent body, supports our efforts."

Noting that "evidence has been recently found that points to concerted, organized and sinister attempts to interfere with our work," Del Ponte said that "we must not be naive about the lengths to which certain elements may be prepared to go to block our investigations." She was referring to an October raid by NATO troops in the Bosnian city of Mostar, a stronghold of Bosnian Croats, on an office of the Croatian intelligence service disguised as an agronomy institute. NATO said it found evidence of a widespread Croatian intelligence operation against international organizations in Bosnia, including the tribunal.

Overall, Del Ponte said prosecutors estimated that "approximately 36 investigations must be completed" in the Balkans before their mandate is exhausted. Thus far, 19 of those investigations have been undertaken, with a further 17 yet to be started. She said she expects as many as 150 additional indictments over the next four years.

In addition to trials involving crimes related to Bosnian Serb campaigns against the Muslim-majority cities of Srebrenica and Sarajevo that are expected to begin next year, she said prosecutors would continue to focus on Kosovo, where indictments are expected against both Serb-led forces and members of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army.

CAPTION: Carla Del Ponte speaks at a news conference marking her first 100 days as chief prosecutor of the U.N. war crimes tribunals.