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Perisic to Surrender

Another former Serb general agrees to travel to The Hague to "defend ... the reputation of the army".

Former Serb army general Momcilo Perisic is to hand himself over to the Hague tribunal next week, the Belgrade government announced on March 2.

A government statement thanked Perisic for his decision to give himself up, welcoming it as "moral and in the interests of the state".

The statement quoted Perisic, who is due to travel to the Netherlands on March 7, as saying he had no fears about facing the court "to defend my honour, the reputation of the army and the dignity of the people".

The tribunal has yet to publicly confirm war crimes charges against Perisic, but he is rumoured to be the subject of one of several sealed indictments.

Over the past decade Perisic has played many roles - army chief of staff; a dissident opposing Slobodan Milosevic's regime; a democratic opposition leader; and most recently a Serbian deputy prime minister who was arrested and sacked after falling under suspicion of spying for the United States.

He was born in the village of Kostunici, in central Serbia, where Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica has family roots.

Perisic graduated from the Land Forces Military Academy, Command Headquarters Academy and the highest military school in Serbia - the School of National Defence. He also earned a university degree in psychology.

When the war in former Yugoslavia broke out in 1991, he was stationed in the Croatian coastal town of Zadar as a colonel in charge of an artillery training centre.

Around 30 civilians were killed in nearby Mostar during fighting between the Yugoslav People's Army, JNA, and local Croat forces, allegedly as a result of Perisic's decision to use artillery against the town.

In 1996, a Croatian court sentenced Perisic in absentia to 20 years imprisonment for the 30 civilian deaths - but the former general later denied that he was responsible for the casualties, claiming that the JNA was only defending itself from Croat paramilitary formations.

"The lives of my soldiers were at stake. If my own son attacked us, I would defend my soldiers at any cost," said Perisic in an interview with Zagreb-based magazine Nacional in January 2000.

Perisic was appointed commander of the JNA Bilece Corps in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1992, and was known among his fellow soldiers as "The King of Mostar" and "Hercegovina's Howitzer" for his military prowess and determination.

The JNA withdrew from Mostar in June 1992, and Serbian military leaders credit Perisic with the successful evacuation of the JNA army barracks in the Hercegovina town of Capljina.

Army helicopters with the assistance of the elite 63rd Airborne Brigade carried out the evacuation of more than 300 soldiers and civilians who came under intense fire from Croatian Defence Council, HVO, troops.

This operation is considered the most successful ever executed by a Yugoslav army general in a combat situation throughout the wars in the Nineties.

After leaving Hercegovina, Perisic was appointed commander of the Third Army with responsibility for South Serbia. In 1993, he was appointed chief of staff of the newly formed Yugoslav Army, VJ, a post he would hold for a further five years.

During this time, Perisic openly disagreed with the policies pursued by then-president Milosevic - alienating himself and paving the way for his eventual dismissal in 1998.

The first sign of his dissent came during the civil protests that took place in Belgrade in early 1996 and again later that same year, after Milosevic refused to recognise the results of local elections won by democratic parties.

While Milosevic's police were brutally beating protesters on the capital's streets, Perisic received a delegation of Belgrade University students who had been involved in organising the demonstrations.

This was a signal to the general public that the military top brass did not endorse Milosevic's policy, and that there would be no repeat of the 1991 use of tanks to quash anti-regime demonstrations.

Perisic's most vocal criticism of Milosevic came on June 16, 1997 - Yugoslav Army Day - when he told the media that the prosperity of modern states "does not depend on individuals but teams of experts who have in common economic, civil, national, political and defence-related patriotic interests".

In 1998, as conflict between the VJ and armed guerrilla groups demanding independence for Kosovo began to spiral out of control, Perisic and Serbian secret police chief Jovica Stanisic spoke out against the use of excessive force against the ethnic Albanian fighters.

During the course of the year, Perisic met several times with General Wesley Clark, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, and the two signed an agreement in October 1998 intended to alleviate tensions in Kosovo through the partial withdrawal of Serb forces from the area.

In one of the meetings of the Yugoslav top political and military commanders in October 1998, minutes of which were obtained by tribunal prosecutors and made public during the Milosevic trial, Perisic was noted warning the high-ranking politicians gathered that the country could be defeated if forced to confront NATO. At the next meeting of the same body in November, he was fired. Stanisic was sacked the previous month.

Perisic continued to criticise Milosevic and in 1999 formed his own political party - the Movement for Democratic Serbia, PDS - which joined the bloc of pro-democracy opposition parties critical of the regime.

One year on, the PDS joined the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition whose candidate Kostunica triumphed in the presidential election held in September 2000.

The regime once again refused to accept the election results, but Milosevic was driven out of office in October 2000, after a series of pro-democracy protests.

Perisic also played a role in these events, quietly organising the formation of an armed group which stood by ready to confront any army or police units that might try to crush the peaceful uprising.

In January 2001, as one of the DOS leaders, Perisic was appointed deputy prime minister in the first post-Milosevic democratic government in Serbia.

However, events were to take a dramatic turn in March 2002. During a meeting between Perisic and an employee of the United States embassy in Belgrade, the deputy prime minister was arrested by the army security service and charged with espionage. He was later sacked from his government post.

Many analysts allege that Perisic was a casualty of the long-running power struggle between then president Kostunica and his great rival, the late prime minister Zoran Djindjic, and was arrested to tarnish the reputation of the latter's new democratic government.

Perisic was released on bail for the duration of the trial, which has yet to be completed. In March this year, Perisic’s lawyer brought criminal charges against several senior military officials for allegedly fabricating evidence.

Daniel Sunter is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.

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