By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia is investigating 13 people, including a former top-ranking security official, on suspicion of helping Serb war crimes fugitives evade justice, the country's war crimes prosecutor said on Friday.
The announcement followed criticism last month by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia of Serbia's efforts to uncover the networks that for years helped protect war crimes fugitives including Bosnian Serb genocide suspects Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
Prosecutor Vojislav Vukcevic said the 13 included a "now-retired top general of military intelligence" suspected of passing information to Mladic. He refused to name any of the suspects.
"With proceedings against the helpers we want to close the Hague tribunal story and to demonstrate that no one is above the law," Vukcevic told a news conference.
The issue is one of many watched by the European Union as it weighs whether to open accession talks with Serbia, which became an official candidate for membership of the bloc in March.
The investigation is focused on the period between the overthrow of late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic and last year's arrest of the last Serb fugitive wanted by the Hague-based tribunal, Croatian Serb wartime leader Goran Hadzic.
Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs during its 1992-95 war, lived for years in the Serbian capital Belgrade disguised as a bearded new-age healer, while Mladic could be seen at soccer matches, weddings and restaurants in the city until Milosevic fell from power in 2000.
Then he went underground, hiding in barracks and aided by hardliners in the military and state security service, his ring of supporters steadily shrinking until his arrest in May last year at the home of a cousin in northern Serbia.
Karadzic was arrested on a bus in 2008, as Serbia' pro-Western government tried to make progress towards membership of the European Union. Hadzic was tipped off to his impending indictment in 2004 and fled home.
Karadzic, Mladic and Hadzic are all standing trial in The Hague.
"How could these fugitives hide for so long?" U.N. war crimes prosecutor Serge Brammertz said last month during a visit to Belgrade. "We need efficient investigation with regards these fugitive networks."
Vukcevic said prosecutors also planned to interview Rade Bulatovic, the former head of Serbia's state security agency (BIA) when Vojislav Kostunica, an ally of Bulatovic, served as Serbian prime minister between 2004 and 2008.
Prosecutors have in the past also questioned retired general Aco Tomic, the head of BIA when Kostunica was president of rump Yugoslavia between 2000 and 2003.
Ten people accused of aiding Mladic were arrested in 2006 and are currently standing trial in Belgrade.
Deepening the sense of intrigue, Vukcevic said Hadzic had received information about his indictment and pending arrest from a "close and well-known associate" of Brammertz's predecessor as U.N. prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, as well as from an official at Serbia's foreign ministry.
"We don't have enough evidence to prosecute either person," he said.
(Editing by Matt Robinson)