VIENNA Austria will not extradite to Serbia a former Bosnian army general arrested last week on a Serbian warrant demanding he face war crimes charges, the foreign ministry said on Monday.
Police arrested Jovan Divjak at Vienna airport on Thursday, triggering protests that brought out hundreds of his supporters in Vienna on Monday and thousands in Sarajevo at the weekend.
An ethnic Serb who defected from the former Yugoslav Peoples Army after it bombed Sarajevo in April 1992, Divjak is seen as a hero in the Bosnian capital, which Bosnian Serb forces besieged for 43 months.
"According to our international law experts, an extradition to Serbia is inconceivable," Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told the Kurier newspaper.
A ministry spokesman confirmed the comments, which he described as "a signal towards the people of Bosnia."
While a judge will ultimately decide whether to extradite Divjak, extradition requests have to take into account the government's view on its foreign policy interests, international law and other factors, the spokesman said.
Around 500 people rallied near Austria's interior ministry to demand Divjak's release.
"I was in the general's unit. I was fighting alongside him. There is no spot and there was no spot on his war record. This is all a nasty political game," said a man who identified himself only as Nenad, 55, now an electrician in Austria.
On Saturday, around 5,000 people had protested peacefully in the Bosnian capital demanding his release from Austrian custody.
Zeljko Komsic, a member of Bosnia's three-man presidency, and Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj visited Divjak in jail, the ministry spokesman said.
Komsic was due to meet Austrian President Heinz Fischer on Tuesday.
The 73-year-old Divjak is one of a group of 19 Bosnian officials charged by Serbia over an attack on a Yugoslav army column in Sarajevo early in the 1992-95 war.
Serb prosecutors say 42 Yugoslav soldiers were killed and 73 wounded in May 1992 when the Bosnian army attacked the convoy after it was offered safe passage and was being escorted out of the city by U.N. troops.
Yugoslav army General Milutin Kukanjac, who had ordered the withdrawal of his forces from Sarajevo, has said that only six people were killed that day.
The United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague has dropped the case due to lack of evidence.
A British court, which last year arrested Bosnia's wartime presidency member Ejup Ganic on the same warrant from Serbia, released him, saying the charges were unfounded.
Divjak is the third Bosnian high-ranking official arrested outside the country on Serbian warrants for crimes committed on Bosnian territory during the 1992-95 war.
Unresolved war crimes committed in the Balkan wars of the 1990s still plague ties between the former Yugoslav republics.
(Additional reporting by Suzana Sabljic in Vienna and Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo; Editing by Louise Ireland)