Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Alleged 'Assassins' Were No Strangers To France
Most Western reactions to the Serbian claim of a French assassination plot against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic have been dismissive.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau said the allegations, made by Yugoslav Information Secretary Goran Matic at a dramatic November 26 press conference, were "totally unsubstantiated."
Many commentators suggest that Belgrade is merely trying to distract attention from domestic problems by inventing foreign plots. Perhaps. The main charge may not hold up. But for once many people may be surprised to find that the Serbian authorities are, at least in part, telling the truth.
In the coming weeks, French officials may have difficulty explaining their connection with some of the five men arrested by Yugoslav authorities during November, especially two of them - Jugoslav Petrusic and Miodrag Pelemis.
For indeed, there is a French connection.
The key figure is Jugoslav Petrusic, a Serb from Kosovo. Known as Colonel 'Yugo Dominik', he first came to international attention in 1997, earning his notoriety serving as a mercenary for President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. His story was widely retold in the world press, including The New York Times.
At his press conference, Matic said that some of those arrested had organised 180 Serb mercenaries from Bosnia to fight for Mobutu against the rebels of Laurent Kabila. He also claimed that Philip Perrette, commercial manager of the French company Geolink, had organised the operation. (When approached, Geolink declined to comment for this article.)
During 1997 French newspapers were full of stories about the French government's support for Mobutu. French authorities have denied involvement in the conflict in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), but it has been alleged that France broke an agreement with Belgium and the US to not send military aid there.
Geolink, a mobile telephone company, is alleged to have organised the transport of the Serbian mercenaries.
But the accusations go further. A well-known Bosnian Serb businessman, under condition of anonymity, told this journalist that Perrette and Geolink were indeed operating under the instruction of the French intelligence services.
In a 1997 interview in the Belgrade representative office of Republika Srpska, this businessman asserted that Perrette and Geolink bought arms from the Yugoslav authorities and exported them to Zaire.
The businessman also stated that, despite international restrictions on the supply of arms to Yugoslavia, in December 1996 Geolink also sold modern military equipment to the Yugoslav authorities. It was during this transaction, he explained, that he had learned about the involvement of the French intelligence services in covert supplies of mercenaries and weapons to Zaire.
In summer 1997, Geolink senior executive Andre Martinie told The New York Times, May 2, 1997, that the firm knew nothing at the time about Perrette's involvement in covert operations through Belgrade. But he confirmed that Perrette visited the Yugoslav capital several times in last three months of 1996.
And he said that the company concluded that Perrette was indeed an agent of the French intelligence service. He added that Perrette had used Geolink's well-developed business contacts in Zaire as a cover for his covert activities.
Links between the company and Perrette, a founding director, were severed at that time.
The Bosnian Serb businessman, however, insists that Perrette was not the only representative of Geolink to visit Belgrade in late 1996. He claimed that in October of that year, Perrette visited the city, accompanied by a second man - and Jugoslav Petrusic.
"Colonel Yugo Dominik was also with them," the businessman said, using Petrusic's nom-de-guerre.
"Dominik did not hide the fact that he was working for the French intelligence service. I have personally seen a photo of him next to [then-President Francois] Mitterrand as his bodyguard," the businessman said.
He said that Petrusic, whom he first met in 1992, had as a younger man emigrated from Yugoslavia and joined the French Foreign Legion. He also said that Petrusic showed him passports he possessed from France, Belgium (where Geolink has a subsidiary) and one African country.
"He constantly travelled between Paris and Belgrade and had no problem with visas. At first, the three of them claimed that they were interested in doing business with Republika Srpska, brought feasibility studies and everything seemed extremely serious," the businessman said.
"I arranged meetings for them in Pale [in Republika Srpska], and they stayed there overnight. They came to Belgrade and Pale again in November, and twice in December."
"It was only in December that I found out what they were really interested in when they asked me about RS soldiers who wanted to go to Zaire as instructors. We talked about that in my apartment. Mobutu's nephew was also there."
The businessman says that he took them to meet with Yugoslav Chief of General Staff Momcilo Perisic at the General Staff Headquarters in central Belgrade and that they later "bragged of having made several million [German] marks on the contract for selling some old Yugoslav military equipment to Zaire.
"When they managed to sell some arms to the Yugoslav government and organise the departure of mercenaries, business investments in the RS were no longer mentioned. I never laid eyes on them again. I left different messages with their firm in Paris, only to be informed that they were on a business trip," he said.
A 1997 New York Times article which described the daily bombing raids launched from an airfield on the edge of Kisangani, Zaire, made by Yugoslav planes with Ukrainian pilots. Tattooed Serbian soldiers trained Zairean units how to use rocket launchers supplied by Serbia.
Subsequently, Yugoslav mercenaries returning from Africa testified in several Belgrade newspapers that three Yugoslav made jet fighter-bombers, ten 82 mm calibre mortars, 50 calibre 60 mm mortars, one thousand automatic rifles, hand-grenades, five armoured cars and ammunition had been sold to Zaire.
'Yugo Dominik' himself has not been shy about his role. As he has told a Belgrade newspaper, "The state of FRY - all its authorities - knew where I was from the very beginning and there was no conspiracy, nor illegal activities. Simply, they know me well".
So well, in fact, that, according to the Bosnian Serb businessman, Petrusic was on the same plane with Milosevic in December 1995 when he was returning from Paris after the formal signing of the Dayton Peace Accords.
Petrusic referred to Perrette, as "my old partner", and "a great friend of the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] and the Serbian people." He confirmed that he had served as the link for military equipment sales on Perrette's behalf.
Petrusic however, will not be remembered as a friend of the Congo. According to testimonies from witnesses in Kisangani, quoted in many international newspapers, this dark-haired, muscular and short-tempered man personally tortured dozens of prisoners with electric shocks and bayonets.
Just before the town fell to Kabila's rebels, 19 prisoners were taken away and never heard from again.
While the story of Yugoslav mercenaries in Zaire/Congo has received considerable attention, little attention has been paid to Petrusic's right-hand man in the recruitment of mercenaries and other actions there - a man known as 'Misha', or Milorad Pelemis, another of the men detained with Petrusic by the Yugoslav authorities.
Information Secretary Matic explained yesterday that those arrested were members of 10th Commando Unit in Republika Srpska, responsible for the massacre of Bosniaks in Srebrenica.
Again, Matic was right. Pelemis was the commander of the shock unit of Bosnian Serbs which participated in the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995 - the worst mass execution of civilians since World War II.
Pelemis' name has come up at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in The Hague, during the trial of Drazen Erdemovic, a member of his unit. Erdemovic, admitted to killing more than 70 unarmed Muslims in Srebrenica and was sentenced to ten years in jail by the ICTY, subsequently cut to five.
Matic did not mention, however, that Pelemis, who owns a flat in Belgrade, was very close to the Serbian state security service. He was close enough, according to his former soldiers, that he could arrange for mercenaries to fly from Belgrade airport using false documents.
In a smoky, dark restaurant in Bijeljina, eastern Bosnia, the group of Serb mercenaries just returned from Zaire - former members of the 10th Commando Unit - told this journalist in summer 1997 that Pelemis was their leader.
They confirmed that Pelemis worked through the Serbian state security service to acquire Yugoslav passports and vaccinations.
Nothing more was heard of Pelemis and Petrusic/Dominik until Matic's revelations about their role in Kosovo. According to Matic the group served as volunteers during the NATO air strikes and committed crimes against ethnic Albanians.
Matic claims part of that group is now in Montenegro, serving as members of special units under control of Milo Djukanovic, President of Montenegro.
With so many episodes in the history of this pair, it could be that the main reason for their arrest is to keep them safely locked away under the government's lock and key.
And also well away from The Hague Tribunal, where their testimony could do great damage to Milosevic and his associates.
Gordana Igric, an award-winning reporter who covered Bosnia and Kosovo, is associate editor for IWPR.
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