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U.S. calls Milosevic extradition 'great news'

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials called the extradition Thursday of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on war crimes charges "great news."

The Yugoslav government in Belgrade handed Milosevic over to U.N. officials for travel to The Hague to face a war crimes tribunal on charges stemming from Yugoslavia's treatment of ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

"Milosevic's transfer further signals the commitment of the new leadership in Belgrade to turn Yugoslavia away from its tragic past and toward a brighter future as a full member of the community of European democracies," President Bush said in a written statement Thursday.

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Bush said the Yugoslav move sends an "unequivocal message" to other wanted figures in the Balkan wars "that they will be held accountable for their crimes."

The United States and its European allies long have held Milosevic responsible for the Balkan wars of the 1990s, from the ethnic conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia to the 1999 allied bombardment of Yugoslavia over Kosovo. Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of state during the Kosovo conflict, told CNN that Milosevic's extradition should clear the way for Yugoslavia to rejoin the European mainstream.

"I'm very pleased for the people of Yugoslavia, who have suffered under a leader who took them in the wrong direction," Albright said. "They have been pariahs in Europe as a result."

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia accuses Milosevic, along with other top Yugoslav and Serbian political officials, of planning and ordering the killings and displacement of large numbers of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

"It's very important that the people of Serbia recognize how much they benefit now from having Milosevic stand trial in an international court," said David Scheffer, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large who worked on war crimes cases.

While sending Milosevic to the Hague "takes a lot of weight off the people of Serbia," Scheffer said the Yugoslav government should move to extradite other senior officials accused of war crimes as well.

"That's the real hour of liberation for the people of Serbia," he said. "I think that's when they can truly move ahead."

U.S. officials credit Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic with arranging for Milosevic to be turned over to the U.N. tribunal.

The move came as Western donors prepared to meet in Belgium to discuss aid to help rebuild Yugoslavia. Djindjic assured Secretary of State Colin Powell in a telephone call that he would send Milosevic to The Hague before the donors' conference began, U.S. officials said.

"Djindjic did the heavy lifting," one official said.

Djindjic on Tuesday told Powell he would not allow "red tape" to block Milosevic's extradition, officials said. Thursday, Djindjic denounced a Yugoslav high court ruling blocking Milosevic's extradition as "worthless," saying international law took precedence over domestic authorities, and Milosevic was soon bound over to U.N. custody.

Years of international sanctions and the U.S.-led air campaign devastated the country's economy and infrastructure. Belgrade is hoping to raise $1.3 billion at the conference for its war-torn country.

Speaking to reporters in Israel, Powell applauded the extradition and said it makes it easier for the United States "to be more forthcoming at the donors' conference in the subsequent days and weeks."

The U.S. is prepared to contribute about $88 million toward reconstruction efforts at the Brussels conference, and Albright said Yugoslavia is likely to receive more aid from the West now that Milosevic has been handed over for trial.

"I would presume that the U.S. would continue to be supportive of the reconstruction of a free and independent Yugoslavia and Serbia," she said.

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