Serbs tell Axworthy to get lost

Community leaders denounce minister's call for help in freeing Canadians


Friday, August 11, 2000

Ottawa -- Serbian community leaders in Canada say Ottawa has a lot of nerve asking for their support to help free two Albertans held by Yugoslav authorities, after Canadian warplanes bombed their homeland during the Kosovo crisis last year.

"Nobody listens to us in Canada when we wanted the bombing stopped. Why does [Foreign Affairs Minister] Lloyd Axworthy think we can have influence in Belgrade now?" said Stojanka Petkovic, a settlement counsellor at the Serbian Heritage Academy in Toronto.

"We are very sorry about the arrests, but Axworthy is just being very arrogant and absurd" to expect help from Canadians of Serb background, said Zana Vitrovich, president of the Association of Serbian Women of Canada.

Canada's Serb community hopes that Shaun Going and his nephew, Liam Hall -- who face possible terrorism charges -- will get a fair trial and it believes they are being treated humanely, said Dan Dostanic, a member of the executive of the Canadian Serb Congress.

But he said nobody wants to be seen doing Ottawa any favours after Mr. Axworthy and the Liberal government showed the community nothing but disdain during the 78-day Kosovo bombing campaign.

On Wednesday, Mr. Axworthy appealed for support from the Serbian community in Canada, estimated to number more than 200,000. He said they might be able to make the case with friends, family members and contacts in Yugoslavia that the two Albertans are innocent and not terrorists as Yugoslav army officials allege.

But the Serb leaders said Yugoslavia is not some backwater where political appeals and letter-writing campaigns can influence the outcome of judicial proceedings.

Ms. Vitrovich said she is no supporter of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but she feels Mr. Axworthy did nothing to help the case of the two Albertans by "demonizing" the Serb leader and calling him a "thug."

The two Albertans and their travelling companions, two British police officers, were arrested 10 days ago, but only yesterday were Canadian diplomats allowed to speak with the Albertans for the first time.

The United Nations Security Council said yesterday that Yugoslavia had disregarded international obligations in connection with the detention of the two Canadians and two Britons, and the earlier arrests of four Dutch nationals who are also being held in Belgrade on unspecified charges.

The statement, read by council President Hasmy Agam of Malaysia, called on Belgrade to fulfill the requirements of international law by allowing the detainees to have access to consular officials from their home countries.

Canadian deputy UN representative Michel Duval said Ottawa was "alarmed by the way [the Albertans and Britons] were arrested and detained and sometimes paraded on TV and charged with crimes even before the accusations were laid in court."

Canadian and British officials have speculated that Mr. Milosevic may try to use the arrests as political fodder in his campaign for re-election on Sept. 24.

On Monday, Mr. Axworthy referred to Mr. Milosevic -- an indicted war criminal -- as a "thug," but has since toned down the rhetoric. He declined to characterize the Yugoslav President during a news conference Wednesday.

Last year, Australia dispatched former prime minister Malcolm Fraser to Belgrade to win the release of two Australian aid workers who had been tried and convicted on charges of espionage during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing campaign.

But there are no plans to send any prominent Canadian political figures to Belgrade to meet with Mr. Milosevic, Marie-Christine Lilkoff, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, said yesterday. A prominent Canadian arriving as a supplicant in Belgrade would be a propaganda coup for Mr. Milosevic.

Elsewhere on the diplomatic front, Russia followed through on a promise to approach Belgrade, a long-time ally of Moscow, on behalf of the Canadians and Britons.

Original article