The chief prosecutor for the U.N. tribunal for Balkans war crimes has said that a Roman Catholic monastery in Croatia is sheltering a fugitive Croatian general charged with atrocities against Serb civilians and that the Vatican has refused pleas to help find him.
Carla Del Ponte of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper that she did not know the name of the monastery that she believes is giving refuge to the fugitive, Ante Gotovina. He is accused of overseeing the murders of at least 150 Serbs and the forced expulsion of tens of thousands near the end of the 1991-95 civil war.
Del Ponte said the Vatican was not helping her find Gotovina. "I have taken this up with the Vatican and the Vatican refuses totally to cooperate with us," the newspaper quoted her as saying.
"The Catholic Church is protecting him," she said.
The Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, issued a statement Tuesday confirming that Del Ponte had sought the Vatican's help in locating the former general, who has been in hiding since his indictment in 2001. But he said she had not provided sufficient information to enable the church to contact "competent ecclesiastic authorities." Previous inquiries by the Vatican "produced negative results," he said.
In Croatia, which is overwhelmingly Catholic, Gotovina is regarded by many as a hero who helped liberate the Krajina valley from largely Orthodox Serb rebels in 1995. He is the top-ranking Croat being sought by the U.N. court.
Del Ponte told the British daily that she visited the Vatican this summer and asked the foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, for help in flushing Gotovina out of one of 80 monasteries in Croatia where he might be hiding.
"Msgr. Lajolo said to me: 'Let me know in which monastery Gotovina is hiding,' " Del Ponte said in the Daily Telegraph interview. "I said, if I knew, I would not be here in Rome."
Del Ponte said Vatican officials "said they have no intelligence, and I don't believe that," adding that she believes the Vatican could find Gotovina "in a few days" if it chose to.
She said she made her criticisms public because of the Vatican's continuing refusal to help.
The Vatican statement said Lajolo made clear to Del Ponte "that the secretary of state is not an office of the Holy See that can collaborate as an institution with courts."
A church spokesman in Croatia, Anton Suljic, said, "We reject the accusations of Carla Del Ponte against the Holy See and the Catholic Church in Croatia," the HINA news agency reported from the capital, Zagreb.
The European Union has said it would not consider Croatia's request for membership until officials turn Gotovina over to the tribunal, located in The Hague.
Special correspondent Sarah Delaney in Rome contributed to this report.