Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Anatomy of an Arrest

The farcical arrest of Slobodan Milosevic exposed tensions between the police and army
By Danijel Sunter

One of the most memorable things about the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic was the confusing altercation between Serbian police, Yugoslav army,VJ, and the band of bodyguards inside his besieged luxury villa.

The bodyguards were the rag-end of Milosevic's Serbian Police Guard - a body officially disbanded last October and led by the notorious ex-paramilitary leader Sinisa Vucinic.

Vucinic, who started firing at police during the stand-off, is the leader of a small extreme nationalist party and has openly boasted of atrocities committed during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

Constantly re-aligning his politics to maintain favour with Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic,Vucinic organised the so-called 'People's Guard' of Milosevic supporters outside of former president's residence.

Vucinic swore to defend his boss at any cost, but then completely denied that he had anything to do with Milosevic after being taken into custody on April 1 for obstructing police.

The bodyguards Vucinic denied leading were further assisted in their defense of Milosevic by the edgy relationship between the Serbian police and Yugoslav army, controlled by the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, and Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, respectively.

Under current Yugoslav legislation all presidential buildings and residences - which include the Milosevic villa - are guarded by the army while the personal security of the president, and former president, remains the responsibility of the Serbian police.

The situation turned farcical as VJ representatives explained to police that they could only admit the arresting officer and police if they were given the go-ahead by the bodyguards inside the house. They went a step further. They handed the keys to the villa over to Vucinic.

This, despite an agreement reached earlier between Serbian interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic and commander of the Yugoslav army Brigade of Guards, General Milivoje Bojovic, to remove army guards from the villa.

The delay in issuing the order for their withdrawal, it seems, was largely down to a confusion over the chain of command.

Bojovic, it seems, was waiting on an order from VJ chief General Nebojsa Pavkovic who was waiting for an order from President Kostunica. The latter was in Geneva at the time, apparently uninformed of any plans to arrest Milosevic.

Impatient at the delay, Mihajlovic told the VJ officers that, unless they withdrew immediately he would send in special forces to storm the residence, police sources say.

Further fraught discussions between army and police ensued outside the villa until army officers at last received orders from Kostunica to withdraw. It was half past midnight and Serb anti-terrorist police primed themselves to go in.

Those familiar with security swoops may have been a little surprised at the operation that followed. Casually dressed in jeans and sneakers, men in balaclavas tossed flash grenades and jumped over the main gate. After coming under fire they reappeared, four of them wounded. A few metres away the pro-Milosevic demonstrators booed the proceedings.

The failed commando operation then developed into a siege which would last from Friday night till Sunday morning, when after lengthy negotiations, gun shots, and tales of suicide threats, Milosevic finally gave himself up.

An officer in the army's anti-terrorist squad told IWPR how he was appalled at the amateur way the operation had been carried out. "It was a badly organized and extremely rash action," he said. "It is irresponsible to send the police on an operation of such high risk, with such widespread media coverage, wearing civilian clothes."

The arrest drama appears to have raised tensions in the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition.

Djindjic and Mihajlovic think the army openly obstructed Milosevic's arrest, while Kostunica claims it acted within the law.

A source close to the senior ministers in the ruling alliance informed IWPR that a faction close to Djindjic decided not to inform Kostunica about the plan to arrest Milosevic.

The same source claims that confusion could have been avoided had Kostunica been informed, and through him, the army chiefs.

Police officers say the army was not entitled to prevent them entering the Milosevic residence, or to treat members of the former president's paramilitary units as genuine policemen.

"The heads of the military promised to let us get on with our job, but they failed to keep that promise," said a senior police officer. "Obstructing officials trying to carry out their duty is a serious offence, whether done by a civilian or an army general. Obviously, some army officers think they are above the law."

According to some Belgrade political analysts, both the army and the police

bear responsibility - the army, for disregarding legal institutions and the state and generally for resisting civilian control, and the police, for their bad organisation and the shambles of the arrest operation.

The occasion of Milosevic's arrest was not the first time Yugoslav army officers have provoked controversy.

Nebojsa Covic, the head of the Serbian and Yugoslav governments' coordinating team in southern Serbia, has already called for the dismissal of Generals Vladimir Lazarevic and Nebojsa Pavkovic, openly accusing them of obstructing the peace process in that region.

Finally, it is up to Kostunica to decide the make up of the army's top brass. For the moment no changes are planned, leaving the army the last Yugoslav institution to be run by Milosevic appointees.

Danijel Sunter is a regular IWPR contributor