Pavkovic Arrest Puts Army Under Spotlight

Detention of ex-military chief may be connected to Milosevic-era assassinations.

Pavkovic Arrest Puts Army Under Spotlight

Detention of ex-military chief may be connected to Milosevic-era assassinations.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The arrest of the former chief of staff of the Yugoslav army is being linked to suspected military involvement in a range of political crimes committed under the Milosevic regime.

Retired general Nebojsa Pavkovic was seized on March 31 as part of a wide-ranging operation against organised crime launched in the aftermath of the assassination of the Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic.

The police would not specify exactly why he was detained, but deputy premier Zarko Korac suggested that it might be related to links between military leaders and a number of murders of political opponents of the former regime.

"There are indications that killers were transported by military helicopter during one crime and there are detailed documents concerning who ordered it," Korac said, adding that information suggested the trail of command led directly to Slobodan Milosevic himself.

Korac did not say which case he was talking about, however, leaving room for speculation. Of the main unsolved cases dating back to the Milosevic regime, the two most likely candidates were the unsuccessful assassination bid against Vuk Draskovic, leader of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, and the murder of the Yugoslav defence minister Pavle Bulatovic.

Draskovic sustained gunshot injuries to the head in June 2000 in an attack in the Montenegrin coastal town of Budva. Directly after the shooting, he claimed that the former Serbian State Security Service, RDB, chief Rade Markovic had sent his would-be assassins by helicopter from Kraljevo, in Serbia, to Budva.

He said the group included Dusan Spasojevic and Mile Lukovic, well known as the bosses of the Zemun organised crime clan that is suspected of masterminding Djindjic's murder.

The Ladjevci airfield outside Kraljevo is the headquarters of an army transport squadron that flies Mi-8 helicopters. These are thought to be the only type of helicopter in the possession of the armed forces that could have been used to transport such a large group from Serbia to Montenegro.

The claims concerning the use of military aircraft to transport killers and their firearms from one republic to the other makes sense, as relations between Belgrade and Podgorica were then so poor that both had established rigorous border controls.

If the killers had traveled by road, the Montenegrin police might have picked them up at a checkpoint. Transport by military helicopter was therefore an ideal solution.

Bulatovic died in a Belgrade restaurant on February 7, 2000, after a man burst in and shot him with an automatic rifle fire.

The restaurant lay next to an army barracks and the gunman was seen fleeing in that direction. It is possible the killer was brought to Serbia from Montenegro and then returned by helicopter.

The theory is given weight by the findings of the parliamentary board of inquiry into the Bulatovic murder, which identified the assassin as a criminal from Budva.

Nebojsa Covic, another deputy prime minister, tried to ease the pressure on the army following Pavkovic's arrest, warning against attempts to draw generalised assumptions about the military as whole from the affair. "This case should not lead to conclusions that the army is institutionally involved in criminal activity," he warned.

Like Korac, Covic was unwilling to specify exactly why Pavkovic had been detained, "This [arrest] concerns the use of military helicopters in one particular crime," he said. "Pavkovic will have to explain all of this to us. I don't know about the prime minister's murder."

Pavkovic was until recently seen as a man who had successfully ingratiated himself with a series of leaders. Milosevic made him chief of staff soon after the NATO conflict in 1999. He remained at his post after the fall of the regime in October 2000, and then became close to the new federal president Vojislav Kostunica.

Kostunica preserved the status quo in the army, keeping almost all Milosevic-era personnel in their posts.

However, on June 24, 2002, Kostunica dismissed Pavkovic after discovering that the general had become close to his bitter political rival, Djindjic.

When the general made it clear he did not accept the president's decision, Kostunica retaliated by revealing a good deal of unfavourable information about him.

Ljubisa Jovasevic, a federal deputy in Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, alleged Pavkovic was involved in cigarette-smuggling and had even used military units for that purpose.

With Pavkovic's arrest, an apparent connection between political murders and the military has been exposed. This could finally shed some light on the various ways the Milosevic regime chose to get rid of its opponents.

Branimir Gajic is a freelance journalist from Belgrade.

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