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

Red Beret Peril

Authorities fear members of notorious unit will rally behind ex-commander suspected of Djindjic assassination.
By Bojan Dimitrijevic

Yugoslav army MIG 21 jets have been buzzing over the headquarters of the Special Operations Unit, JSO, known as the Red Berets, in the north Serbian town of Kula for several days now.


The Stolc compound at the edge of the town, 150 km north of Belgrade, is the base of a once-feared unit, which Serbia's edgy authorities now regard with the deepest suspicion as a centre of potential revolt.


Kula has become a centre of speculation, which has focused on whether members of the special unit might rise in support of their ex-commander Milorad “Legija” Lukovic, the man the government believes is implicated in the assassination of the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic.


There is no obvious sign that military or police forces are mustering for armed action here. In this town of 20,000 inhabitants, life goes on as normal. The Stolc compound also appears relaxed. Supply vehicles and fuel tanks trundle in and out of the HQ and at one point around 30 Red Berets were seen leaving in civilian vehicles, hiding their faces from photographers and cameramen.


But they have been banned from leaving the base with their equipment and military vehicles ever since the murder of the premier on March 12, according sources in the army and police, the latter controlling all the roads leading to Kula.


The authorities clearly fear that these battle-hardened war veterans might stage a coup in support of their former commander, now one of the leading figures in the Zemun gang that the authorities hold responsible for Djindjic’s murder, as well as other killings.


Observers say the risk of armed conflict with the JSO is still very much alive while the unit retains use of armoured vehicles and heavy weaponry. The authorities will not be able to breathe easily until the unit has been disarmed.


A number of incidents in recent months have highlighted just how out of the control the Red Berets have become. They staged a revolt in the winter of 2001, under the command of their present chief, Dusan “Gumar” Maricic, using their American Hummer terrain vehicles to block the motorway from Belgrade to protest the government's policy of cooperating with The Hague war crimes tribunal. By so doing, they threatened to seriously destabilise the Djindjic government.


The revolt ended peacefully, but the authorities did not dismantle the unit. Instead, they removed it from the authority of the Serbian State Security, RDB, and placed it under the public security department within the police ministry.


In the days leading up to the Djindjic assassination, eyewitnesses told IWPR that the Red Berets' Hummer vehicles were spotted in the residential suburb of Dedinje, where Djindjic lived. This was highly unusual, for these vehicles have rarely left their base in Stolc except for use in battle. The probable motive was a show of force at a time when the Zemun gang and Legija himself were starting to clash openly with the authorities.


After the premier's murder, the Serbian government lost all confidence in the JSO, which in this risky and confusing time threatened to pose a serious danger to law and order. As a result, the police ministry, though it had overall command over the unit, did not deploy it in the war that had just been declared against the forces of organised crime. Instead, they handed the task to another elite formation, the Gendarmerie, or special anti-terrorist unit, SAJ, as well as to other police intervention units.


In the arrest of hundreds of criminals that followed, the ex-RDB head, Jovica Stanisic and his close colleague, Franko “Frenki” Simatovic, founder of the Red Berets, were also detained. Both have been cited in cases before The Hague tribunal as leading individuals behind the execution of Milosevic's war plans in Croatia and Bosnia, for which purposes they also called on the services of the Red Berets.


Because of its links with these figures from Milosevic's secret service and because its former commander was a criminal gang leader, the JSO will probably now be dissolved, analysts say.


Most active members will probably be transferred to other police units, after taking account of the risk of their forming ex-Red Beret cells in their new police units. Most observers believe the authorities do not dare leave the members of the JSO unemployed lest they are recruited to criminal gangs.


The JSO and its ex-commander Legija had close ties to Serbia's new democratic government and with Zoran Djindjic, which gradually changed from cooperation to open conflict.


The unit played a key role in bringing down Milosevic's regime. Legija met the then opposition leader Djindjic and agreed that his men would withdraw their allegiance to the regime.


The deal with Djindjic guaranteed Legija and the JSO a future under the new order. There was no settling of accounts inside the unit. As a result, it remained largely under the influence of people compromised from the Milosevic era.


On the new government's orders, the Red Berets, in late in 2000 and early in 2001, took part in suppressing ethnic Albanian guerrillas in the Presevo area of southern Serbia. Working in harness with the military and the police, the JSO also helped establish law and order in the demilitarised zone between Serbia proper and Kosovo.


The authorities also made use of the unit in the arrest of Milosevic at his home in Dedinje. The poorly-led action was botched, but still ended with the former president’s surrender to the authorities. The final act in the drama - the handing-over of Milosevic to the tribunal on June 28, 2001 - was also left to the JSO, which took the Hague indictee in one of its helicopters to the NATO base at Tuzla airport.


However, by then Legija was showing signs of losing control. The media reported that at one point, while in a drunken state, he set fire to a disco in Kula, near the JSO base. After a shooting incident in a club in the centre of Belgrade, the press said that he’d stepped down as JSO head, and had been replaced by Maricic.


Police sources have told IWPR that Maricic is still close to Lukovic, which means that latter still exerts considerable power in this unit.


The Red Berets carried out numerous actions in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, starting in 1991, when Stanisic was RDB boss. The Hague prosecution has mentioned their role in numerous occasions during Milosevic's trial, though the unit only took on its current form and title in 1996.


According to police sources, for a long time the Red Berets did not function as a single unit. They operated instead as a number of groups carrying out special operations on the battlefields of former Yugoslavia as part of the RDB's special operations group.


Observers, whose views are backed by Hague documentation, say the group comprised elite police units, paramilitary formations led by Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, Krajina Serb forces and a number of smaller armed factions.


Their operational HQ, according to various former Red Beret members, was the current police training centre in Fruska Gora in northern Serbia.


Serbian TV in the spring of 1992 showed footage of Red Berets in camouflage clothing on the frontier with Bosnia.


The units were most active from 1991 to 1995 inside the self-proclaimed Serbian state in Croatia - the Republic of Serbian Krajina, RSK - in eastern Slavonia and the Knin Krajina, where they organised local Serb resistance to the Croatian police and paramilitaries, according to Hague sources.


The RDB presence was highly visible in the RSK, where some of its teams led a number of military operations. In the final months of the entity’s existence in 1995, these forces were clearly visible in local TV footage, with some of the members of the future JSO identified by the RDB emblems on their berets. Amongst them was Lukovic, at the time known as Milorad Ulemek.


The presence of the Red Berets was also visible in the Srem and Baranja area of eastern Croatia in the so-called transition period when the territory was returned from the RSK to Croatian control from 1995 to 1996. From 1991, this area was the operational centre of Arkan's Serbian Volunteer Guard, some of whose members joined the JSO in 1996.


According to local Bosnian Serb sources, the unit's members were also seen in eastern Bosnia, in the Posavina area in the north and elsewhere.


Their principal role was to help local Serbian armed forces and the military wing of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, seize power in Muslim-majority areas. In several cases, the actions of the group were decisive in enabling the party to seize power from the Sarajevo authorities. They also took an active role in the battle between Fikret Abdic's rebel forces and the 5th Corps of the Bosnian Army, even donning the uniforms of Abdic's western Bosnian statelet.


According to police sources, the JSO was also active in the period leading up to the peak of the Kosovo crisis in 1998 and 1999.


Members took part in battles in Drenica, in the village of Donji Prekaz village, between the end of February and early March 1998, wiping out the ethnic Albanian guerrilla leader Jasari and his family - actions that, unbeknownst to the Serbs, were filmed by a British TV crew.


During the next phase of the conflict in 1998 and the war with NATO a year later, the unit was deployed with other police units in Kosovo, according to need.


The alliance took aim at their centre in Kula during the first night of the war on March 24, 1999. After the war, some JSO forces remained at the base, while others were redeployed in Belgrade, close to the Milosevic residence.


It was only after the fall of RSK and the withdrawal of RDB groups that in 1996 the JSO took on its current form.


Today, the Red Berets comprise many of the most experienced fighters of paramilitary and police units that fought in the Yugoslav wars, and have access to highly sophisticated military equipment.


From the outbreak of the Kosovo crisis, the unit enjoyed primacy within the police when it came to questions of equipment and finance - a matter that has since drawn the attention of The Hague tribunal.


Thus the JSO became both the most experienced and best-resourced unit of its type in south-east Europe, obtaining MI-24 helicopter gunships, Hummer vehicles and the most up-to-date firearms.


In addition to their action in the field of battle, JSO operatives were also allegedly used during the Milosevic era to assassinate his opponents. The unit was implicated in a plot to kill Vuk Draskovic, leader of the opposition party, the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, in October 1999.


In January 2003, Red Beret members Nenad Ilic and Nenad Bujosevic were each sentenced to 15 years in prison for the murder of four SPO officials who died when a car the accused was driving swerved into a convoy of vehicles in which Draskovic was travelling. Radomir Markovic, RDB chief at the time, was sentenced to seven years in jail for orchestrating the murder attempt.


The fate of the Red Berets depends upon their conduct in the coming weeks. If they remain quiet, they will probably be dismantled and their members transferred to other police units.


But if they rally behind Lukovic, conflict is inevitable and many casualties can be expected.


Aleksandar Radic is a Belgrade based military analyst. Bojan Dimitrijevic is an associate of the Modern History Institute in Belgrade. Vladimir Jesic is a freelance journalist.