Milosevic Cronies Abducted

Serbian criminals have a new highly profitable line of business - the kidnapping of wealthy Milosevic cronies.

Milosevic Cronies Abducted

Serbian criminals have a new highly profitable line of business - the kidnapping of wealthy Milosevic cronies.

The families of prominent Milosevic loyalists, who made fortunes during the ex- president's decade in power, are being targeted by Serbian kidnappers.

Three abductions in the last month have sent shock waves through the former ruling elite, prompting many to send their families abroad for safety.

With Slobodan Milosevic's fall from power, the criminal gangs that did his bidding have slipped their leash and regard the kidnapping of the ex-president's rich cronies as a new and very profitable line of business, police sources say.

Two kidnap dramas, involving a wealthy celebrity couple and a Bosnian Serb tycoon, ended earlier this week.

Fahreta Zivojinovic, a famous folk singer known as Lepa Brena, and her husband Slobodan, tennis star-turned-businessman, were reunited in Belgrade with their eight-year-old son, Stefan, on Tuesday evening, after paying kidnappers 2.5 million German marks.

The same night, 300 km away in Sarajevo, Velimir Mandic, the brother of powerful Belgrade businessman Momcillo Mandic, was freed in an elaborate police operation. A radio transmitter placed in the bag containing the 2.5 million mark ransom enabled officers to trace and arrest the kidnappers.

Police sources have told IWPR that the brother-in-law of murdered Belgrade wheeler-dealer Vladan Kovacevic has also been kidnapped. They say his abductors are demanding a 5 million mark ransom.

Mandic, Kovacevic and the Zivojinovic couple belonged to Milosevic's financial elite, who grew enormously rich under the patronage of the deposed Serbian leader.

A close associate of alleged Bosnian Serb was criminal Momcilo Krajisnik, Mandic amassed a vast fortune from illegal deals during the Bosnian war. In 1993, he turned up in Belgrade where he got involved in sanctions busting.

More recently, he was appointed manager of the Partizan softball club. While not a lucrative job, it elevated him higher in the Milosevic hierarchy - which only allocated such posts to its most loyal members.

Kovacevic, who was closely associated with Milosevic's son Marko, became rich in the mid-nineties by acquiring a monopoly over duty free goods. Following his assassination in 1997, his empire is said to have dwindled. Its thought his widow Bojana Bajrusevic is unlikely to be able to pay the ransom her brother's kidnappers are demanding.

The Zivojinovic couple were less directly associated with the Milosevic regime. Slobodan owned a chain of hotels in the winter resort of Mount Zlatibor, popular with the ex-president's people, including his son Marko. Fahreta ran a top production company, which pumped out a brand of Serbian folk music popular with the former regime.

The Zivojinovics left for the United States the day after their son was released, clearly feeling they were no longer safe in Belgrade.

Many prominent members of the Milosevic elite fled the country after their patron was overthrown. The recent kidnappings have prompted some of those who remained to join the exodus.

Milosevic tightly controlled the activities of the mafia. He is believed to have used them to both smuggle goods into the country and intimidate, and even dispense with, political rivals - the recent abduction of the former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic being a prime example.

The overthrow of Milosevic has freed the mafia bosses of political control, enabling them to pursue their own interests. Crime experts believe the kidnapping of the former president's cronies - who've become easy targets because the state no longer affords them any protection- will form a growing part of their activities.

"Abductions used to serve a political purpose, but I think the motive now is simply money," said the Budimir Babovic, a former Yugoslav Interpol chief.

The mafia, it seems, are clearly taking advantage of a power vacuum left by Milosevic's fall from power. With the transitional government struggling to impose itself, the crime barons are free to expand their empires. Unless the authorities act soon, some fear they could pose a serious threat to the state. "We could soon be in the same situation as some Latin American countries," warned Marko Nicovoic, a former senior Belgrade police officer.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor

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