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Bounty-hunters Hound Serbia's Most Wanted

Top Serbian officials on the Tribunal wanted list are living in terror of former comrades who are allegedly being paid by NATO to bring them to justice
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Turncoat bounty-hunters are reportedly scooping fat cash rewards for abducting suspected war criminals from their Serbian hideouts and handing them over to NATO troops.


The bands of mercenaries are said to stalk former comrades from the Bosnian wars, using intelligence provided by their UN paymasters.


The practice came to light after Dragan Nikolic, 43, on trial for war crimes in The Hague, claimed he was kidnapped by bounty-hunters in Smederevo, 50 kilometres east of Belgrade. At the time of his arrest, he was living incognito in a rented house on Joakim Vujic Street, recovering from a back injury.


A source in the Serbian police confirmed that Nikolic was abducted by two men who spoke Serbian and claimed to be local police officers. They bundled him into a car boot and drove him to the border with Bosnia. Here he was bound hand and foot before being smuggled across the Drina River by boat and handed over to American SFOR soldiers on April 21.


The police source said the bounty-hunters were paid around 30,000DM for surrendering Nikolic to the authorities.


Also known as "Jenki", Nikolic was indicted in November 1994 when he was identified as the commander of the Susica camp, near Vlasenica, where Bosnian Muslims were allegedly tortured, raped and executed in 1992.


In an April 28 court appearance, he pleaded not guilty to 80 separate charges - the highest number faced by any Tribunal defendant to date.


However, Nikolic has high hopes that the circumstances of his arrest will lead to the case against him being dismissed. His defence counsel intends to prove that the former camp commandant was detained on territory which does not fall under UN jurisdiction. NATO claims he was apprehended by SFOR troops at an unspecified location in northern Bosnia.


According to the Tribunal statutory code, prosecutors could be forced to release Nikolic if the arrest is deemed illegal.


Defence lawyer Howard Morrison is also likely to refer to the case of Stevan Todorovic, who was arrested in similar circumstances on Mount Zlatibor, south-eastern Serbia. The former head of the Serbian police in Bosanski Samac stands accused of war crimes committed in 1992 against Bosniaks and Croats.


Todorovic claims he was abducted by members of the so-called Spider ring who are due to go on trial in Belgrade this month for the attempted assassination of President Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian officials.


Todorovic says he recognised three Spider members - Jugoslav Petrusic, Rade Petrovic and Branko Vlace -- from their pictures in the newspaper and is convinced they are the same men who kidnapped him in September 1998. It is thought he was sold to French troops for 20,000DM.


The Spider group is believed to have been working for the French and Serbian secret services simultaneously, initially recruiting Serbian veterans to fight for ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seka in Zaire.


The source inside the Serbian police force said suspected war criminals across the former Yugoslavia were living in terror of the bounty-hunters, who are thought to be motivated entirely by financial gain.


He said a number of former politicians and army officials had moved from Republika Srpska into Serbia over the past year in a bid to escape the long arm of The Hague Tribunal.


"Over the last three months, they have been followed by people - mainly from the elite police and army units - who are thought to be bounty-hunters," said the police officer. "Not only are they paid by the international community in Bosnia but they are also given access to logistic and intelligence information. The government of Republika Srpska is aware of this situation."


He added, "I believe that the wave of abductions will intensify in the near future."


One Bosnian Serb official from Pale, who suspects that he is on the Tribunal's secret indictment list, said the arrest of indicted politician Momcilo Krajisnik last month had unnerved most other suspects. Territory under Milosevic's control, he explained, was "not as safe as it was two weeks ago".


"I don't even feel safe in Belgrade," he said, adding that local police had refused to give him protection.


The man also told IWPR that "dubious people from Republika Srpska" had recently made inquiries concerning his whereabouts. "During the war, these people were in special police units connected to the secret police in Belgrade," he said. "They are all our former comrades, people we know. Their war records could bring them to The Hague even sooner than their quarries."


The official believes the bounty-hunters could even be in the pay of President Milosevic who may be hoping to curry favour with Western governments by extraditing the worst of the war crimes suspects.


The allegations come just months after Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte called for "creative ways" to arrest war crimes suspects currently "beyond the reach of SFOR". The United States government has since offered a bounty of $5 million for the arrest of Milosevic and his Bosnian henchmen, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.


General Mladic, wartime commander of the Bosnian Serbs, remains a conspicuous figure in Belgrade, making his public appearances in the company of 10 heavily-armed bodyguards.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor based in Republika Srpska


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