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

Karadzic Ally Flees to Belgrade

Leading member of Bosnian Serb fugitive’s support network believed to be holed up in the Serbian capital.
By IWPR

A top ex-Bosnian Serb state security official, who fled Bosnia last month after international forces closed in on Radovan Karadzic’s network of supporters and protectors, is living in Belgrade, IWPR has learnt.


International and local sources have told IWPR that Ljuban Ecim is keeping a low profile in the Serbian capital, where it's thought he may be protected by some of his underworld associates.


Several former Karadzic associates are now resident in Belgrade, lending weight to the Hague tribunal chief prosecutor’s claim that the former Bosnian Serb leader may also be hiding there.


The Karadzic-Belgrade connection fell under the international spotlight on February 12, when Carla Del Ponte insisted the tribunal’s most wanted suspect was in Belgrade. The Serbian capital had become "a safe haven for our fugitives," she added.


Del Ponte`s claim has not been substantiated, and Belgrade officials have vociferously denied the claim.


The international war crimes court, on the other hand, has long believed Karadzic`s supporters have been using Serbia and its capital as a base for their activities.


"Karadzic`s network is working through Serbia just as the support groups for the other 15 indicted fugitives living there do," Florence Hartmann, the Hague`s chief spokesperson told IWPR, referring to Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and other key suspects.


The international authorities in Bosnia see Ecim, 40, as an important figure in Karadzic’s circle.


Ecim was placed on a European Union blacklist of key Karadzic supporters last July, while the United States added him to their own blacklist on February 9. In Bosnia, the High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, ordered his bank accounts frozen.


A diplomatic source in Sarajevo has assured IWPR that Ecim remains a key player in Karadzic’s web of allies, ”Ecim continues to provide support to Karadzic in Bosnia through an intelligence network.”


Another international representative in Sarajevo said Ecim was one of two heads of this network, which reported to Karadzic`s old political party, the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS.


Ashdown justified the February 9 decision to blacklist Ecim in similar terms, saying it was a coordinated act by the international community aimed at confronting a criminal network supporting Karadzic and other indictees.


Ecim worked in the early 1990s in Banja Luka in Bosnia’s state security service. During the 1992-95 war, he commanded a Bosnian Serb paramilitary police unit in north-west Bosnia.


His alleged links to the Belgrade underworld date from this time, when his forces coordinated attacks with the Tigers paramilitary group, led by Zeljko ”Arkan” Raznatovic.


Tribunal witnesses have testified that Ecim`s unit also fought alongside the Red Berets, a state security force, which the Serbian government disbanded in March 2003 following the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic.


After the war, Ecim became chief of Bosnian Serb state security for the Banja Luka region, while apparently maintaining links to Arkan and his associates in Belgrade.


In 1997, Karadzic’s successor as Bosnian Serb chief, Biljana Plavsic, publically named Ecim as a close associate of Karadzic when she removed him from his post.


This followed a decision by her more pro-western administration to break with Karadzic’s supporters, who were based in the eastern mountain village of Pale.


A Republika Srpska politician told IWPR, "In the second half of 1997, Ecim fled to Belgrade, where he was the second man in Arkan`s organisation, in charge of security. He returned when the SDS got back into power." The politician added that Ecim had a record of disappearing in Belgrade when life became dangerous in Bosnia. His latest flight to the Serbian capital is believed to have been prompted by an international operation in January to crack down on Karadzic’s network of supporters and protectors


Momcilo Mandic is another alleged key Karadzic network member living in Belgrade since 1993. A former deputy minister of Karadzic`s police force, he has also been put on US and EU blacklists.


On March 7, 2003, the US treasury department banned Mandic from entering America, describing him as "a major funding source for Radovan Karadzic through his control of an elaborate network of criminal enterprises engaged in embezzlement, business fraud and fictitious loans".


The treasury department said Mandic was "coordinating with the present Republika Srpska intelligence chief to facilitate OBS [Bosnian Serb security service] operations and to fund the movement and protection of persons indicted for war crimes."


The Serbian police detained Mandic in April 2003 after the assasination of Djindjic. He was later charged over an illegal transfer of millions of euro from Serbia to Bosnia. Mandic was released in September 2003 and all the charges were dropped. He continues to live in Belgrade and denied on several occasions that he is supporting Karadzic.


Another EU-blacklisted Karadzic supporter, with property and business interests in Belgrade, is his brother, Luka, a member of the Committee For the Truth about Radovan Karadzic, which was set up to defend Karadzic’s reputation.


The committee’s secretary , Miroslav Toholj - Karadzic’s former information minister - dismissed Del Ponte`s statement that Karadzic was in Belgrade as "ridiculous".


Toholj claimed old Karadzic associates in Belgrade like himself were under local state security forces surveillance which made it unlikely that Karadzic would seek sanctuary there.


Describing Del Ponte as an intriguer pursuing her own political agenda, Toholj said he feared Karadzic would not be taken alive because of his contacts with western intelligence agencies during the war, and because he knew too much.


"They might well kill him during an arrest operation," he told IWPR. "It is in their interest that he does not stay alive.”


Politically, the sands are shifting in Serbia in favour of the Serbian Radical party, whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, has himself been indicted for crimes in Bosnia and whose party strongly opposes cooperation with the tribunal. Indeed, some pro-Karadzic posters have also been put up recently on the streets of the capital.


Some believe the current political climate may have prompted the police and the renamed state security service, the Security and Information Agency, BIA, to ease off the pursuit of tribunal indictees.


Hugh Griffiths is an IWPR investigations coordinator and the Nerma Jelacic is IWPR programme manager in Sarajevo.