Croatia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Miro Kovac is seen in parliament before the government was approved in Zagreb, Croatia, January 22, 2016. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic(reuters_tickers)
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia lodged a diplomatic protest on Thursday after Croatia's foreign minister was quoted as saying it was "an historical perversion" for Belgrade to claim the right to judge war crimes committed anywhere in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The protest marked an escalation of a row between the neighbours over Croatia's attempt to set conditions for Serbia to make progress in its talks on joining the European Union.
Croatia, which fought a 1991-95 war against Belgrade-backed Serb rebels to forge its independence from Yugoslavia, wants Serbia to drop its claim - enshrined in a 2003 law - to jurisdiction over war crimes committed on the entire territory of the former Yugoslavia.
The opening of a new policy area or chapter of Serbia's EU entry talks has been held up while Croatia, which joined the bloc in 2013, lobbies its EU partners to support its position.
"The country in which plans for the 1990s wars were made cannot be the judge or the policeman for war crimes in all countries in former Yugoslavia, including Croatia," Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovac said in an interview last weekend with the country's "Jutarnji list" newspaper.
"That is absurd, an historical perversion in a way, and prevents good neighbourly cooperation," Kovac said.
Serbia's Foreign Ministry called in Croatia's ambassador on Thursday to deliver a protest note over Kovac's comments "in which he insults and undervalues Serbia", the ministry said.
"The ministry thinks that refraining from such statements in the future would contribute to better bilateral and neighbourly relations," it said in a statement.
The Croatian Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the protest, delivered a few days before Serbia's general election.
Serbia approved the law claiming jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes over the whole territory of former Yugoslavia in 2003 saying it would improve cooperation with the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.
Croatia reacted angrily last month when the U.N. tribunal acquitted Serbian nationalist Vojislav Seselj of war crimes.
Croatia banned Seselj from entering the country and Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic called the verdict "shameful".
Serbia and Croatia have sought reconciliation over the last 15 years but bad feeling flares up from time to time.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade and Igor Ilic in Zagreb; Editing by Adrian Croft and Gareth Jones)