By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council on Monday extended the work of the judges of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, but Russia abstained from the vote because it said the resolution did not address inefficiencies of the court.
Since it was set up in 1993, the tribunal has indicted 161 people for crimes stemming from the wars that shattered the Yugoslav federation, of whom 15 have been acquitted. Proceedings are ongoing for 31 suspects.
But allies Russia and Serbia have sharply criticized the tribunal over recent decisions to free two Croatian generals and a Kosovo Albanian former guerilla commander.
"The work of the tribunal has serious systemic problems that this body is not dealing with by themselves," Russia's deputy U.N. envoy Sergey Karev told the 15-member council after the resolution was adopted with 14 votes in favor.
"The head of the tribunal's so-called measures to enhance the efficiency of trials has had the opposite effect. The systematic failure of the leadership of the tribunal to honor its promises on deadlines for completing its work has definitely undermined our confidence in this body," Karev said.
He said proposals by Russia to improve the effectiveness of the tribunal were not agreed to by other council members during the drafting of the resolution on the tribunal.
Last month the most senior Croatian military officer convicted of war crimes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, General Ante Gotovina, was freed on appeal in a decision that is straining already fraught ties between Croatia and Serbia.
Gotovina, hailed as a hero at home but reviled in Serbia, was freed along with Croatian police commander Mladen Markac.
Weeks after that decision, the Hague-based court acquitted Ramush Haradinaj, a Kosovo Albanian former guerrilla commander who served briefly as prime minister, of crimes against humanity in a retrial at the U.N. tribunal.
The United States and Britain spoke after the U.N. Security Council vote to express support for the tribunal.
"We regret that consensus was not possible," Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told the council. "The tribunal plays an essential role in the fight against impunity and in delivering justice to the countless victims of atrocities in the former Yugoslavia."
Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president, was the court's highest-ranking indictee. He died in detention in 2006, before the court could deliver a verdict. Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief, Ratko Mladic, are currently facing trial.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)