BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ The Yugoslav government readied a Cabinet decree Saturday that would clear the way for Slobodan Milosevic's extradition to the U.N. war crimes tribunal, fulfilling the key Western condition for billions in aid money.
Pro-democracy officials from Serbia, the larger of Yugoslavia's two republics, drafted the decree Friday after abandoning efforts to push a bill on cooperation with the U.N. tribunal through the Yugoslav parliament.
``Yugoslavia's international obligation as a U.N. member state is to cooperate with The Hague tribunal,'' said Nebojsa Covic, a Serb pro-democracy leader. ``We must no longer allow ourselves to be Milosevic's hostages.''
A Cabinet session to adopt the decree was scheduled for mid-afternoon, and government officials said it would go ahead despite opposition by government ministers from Montenegro, the smaller Yugoslav republic.
Montenegrin ministers said they would boycott the meeting and took steps to resign _ a move that would not block the decree but could lead to new elections in Yugoslavia's fledgling democracy.
A coalition of pro-democracy Serb parties lacks a majority in the federal parliament but has enough votes in the federal Cabinet to pass the decree on its own.
Once adopted, the decree would provide a legal basis for cooperation with the U.N. court, including extradition of Yugoslav citizens, a move barred by current legislation.
The decision on extraditing war crimes suspects such as Milosevic has become increasingly urgent ahead of a key donors conference June 29 in Brussels, Belgium. The United States has said Yugoslavia could lose billions of dollars in desperately needed financial assistance unless Milosevic faces justice at the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.
But Montenegrin Cabinet ministers, who were once allied with Milosevic but officially switched sides after his ouster last October, remained resolute in their opposition to the decree. They claimed the U.N. court is biased.
Their adamant stand has led to speculation that they remain loyal to Milosevic.
Less than three hours before the Cabinet meeting, the Montenegrin ministers from the Socialist People's Party announced they would skip the session to protest the decree and offered to resign their ministerial posts.
The resignations must first be approved by the party's main board, however.
The clash places the fragile Yugoslav federation into deeper crisis. A resignation by the Montenegrins could force the Serbian pro-democracy officials to run the country with a minority government, or ultimately lead to a government collapse and calls for new federal elections.
Since his arrest April 1, Milosevic has remained in detention in Belgrade pending an investigation into allegations of corruption and abuse of power during his 13-year rule.
But the U.N. tribunal wants him tried in The Hague for alleged war crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Milosevic's crackdown on Kosovo's ethnic Albanians led to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that ultimately forced Serb troops out of the southern province.
Veselin Cerovic, one of Milosevic's attorneys, said his client is convinced no one will dare surrender him to the U.N. tribunal. He quoted Milosevic as saying he feels ``proud to have led the nation against the horrible NATO aggression against the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our country.''