Serb special forces up in arms after unwittingly arresting two war crimes suspects.


Serb special forces up in arms after unwittingly arresting two war crimes suspects.

Saturday, 10 November, 2001

Serbia: War Crimes Arrests Spark Serbian Mutiny

Serbia's readiness to extradite suspected war criminals has been thrown into confusion once again by a mutiny of elite commandos who refused to permit any more arrests until their demands were met.

Their rebellion came after Serbian police minister Dusan Mihajlovic last week ordered the special forces to arrest brothers Predrag and Nenad Banovic, who were then extradited to The Hague.

The authorities' move coincided with the visit of a Serbian delegation, including premier Zoran Djindjic, to Washington where the US officials conditioned all financial aid, vital for the reconstruction of Serbia, on their cooperation with the tribunal.

Djindjic, upon his return, referred to cooperation with The Hague as a "fundamental of political agreement" with the US.

Leaders of the Special Operations Unit, JSO, also known as the Red Berets, proclaimed on November 9 that pending new legal measures they would refuse to obey any more orders by Serbian government ministers to round up suspects wanted by The Hague.

The commandos, led by Dragan Maricic, complained they had not been told the brothers they arrested were war crime suspects.

The Banovics were accused of crimes against humanity and breaches of the Geneva Convention while guarding imprisoned Bosniaks in Keraterm camp near Prijedor.

"We were told that they were perpetrators of serious criminal acts," one JSO officer told journalists at a press conference. "The unit was deceived in this way and made to commit an illegal act against our will. We demand the resignation of Mihajlovic."

They stated they would proceed with arrests but on the condition that a law is enacted which would confirm the republic's cooperation with The Hague tribunal.

The JSO is an arm of the Serbian State Security, RDB, organisation. Its leaders insisted they still recognise The Hague tribunal but they want the procedures enshrined in law. When the JSO arrested former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic earlier this year, it was on the written order of a judge.

Legal experts said that technically the JSO had a case because the government of Yugoslavia still has not adopted a proper legal framework for transferring suspects to The Hague. After the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia and its federal coalition partners from Montenegro agreed on the proposed legislation on extradition, the Yugoslav constitutional court, presided by a close associate of Slobodan Milosevic, dismissed it.

But it turns out there may be more to the JSO motives. Upon his return from Washington, Djindjic reflected on the list given him by Del Ponte during her latest visit to Belgrade. The list contained 200 names of Serbs "interesting" to The Hague, 50 of which were apparently JSO members.

Security analysts in Belgrade believe that JSO members might have been motivated by the fear that some of their former leaders, notably Jovica Stanisic, might themselves end up on The Hague's wanted list.

The government might have difficulty overcoming the JSO by force. Founded in 1991 by Milosevic's close party assistant Mihalj Kertes, the special forces were lavishly funded and equipped with the latest weaponry, including state-of-the-art all-terrain Hummer vehicles and Russian Mi-24 gunship helicopters.

The unit was believed to have been involved in secret war operations in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Some of its members were accused of committing political assassinations. In 1999, JSO members were linked to a staged traffic accident designed to assassinate the opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, who heads the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO.

Four SPO officials were killed in the accident and Draskovic survived only by chance. A JSO member who was behind the wheel of the truck that caused the accident is now on trial for murder. Draskovic frequently referred to the JSO as "Milosevic's death squadrons".

After the downfall of Milosevic on October 5, 2000, the JSO earned the sympathy of the new Serbian authorities for having refrained from blocking his overthrow. Djindjic, leader of Democratic Party, DS, testified after the events that he had made an agreement with the then JSO leader, Milorad Ulemek, that his officers would not intervene against protesting citizens.

As a result Ulemek, a former member of French Foreign Legion and a commander of a notorious Serb paramilitary formation, The Tigers, was kept on as head of the JSO after October 5. But he lost the job earlier this year after two serious incidents. In one a discotheque was burned to the ground and in another Ulemek was involved in a Belgrade nightclub quarrel with a group of criminals.

The day after the mutiny, commandos reinforced their protest by blocking major highways with armoured vehicles. Serbia's political leaders at first refused to negotiate with them. Djindjic then told them that public servants should not dabble in politics. "If they are not satisfied with the politics of the government they can resign and look for another job," he said. Nevertheless he went to negotiate with JSO leaders on Monday in a meeting which ended without result.

But on Wednesday, fearing that continued protests will endanger his image in the US, Djindjic decisively moved to quash the protest. He refused to replace Mihajlovic, since that could weaken the government. In turn, he offered a solution: he removed JSO superiors, chiefs of secret police Goran Petrovic and Zoran Mijatovic. He also withdrew the unit's secret police status to make them more accountable.

However, if influential members of the police and army, some of which are the most embittered opponents of The Hague, offer their support to continued JSO protests, a solution may not be at hand, and Djindjic's agreement with the US over aid may fold.

Meantime, Djindjic's rival Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica clearly wants to profit from the entire situation. The latter's party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, has repeatedly said that it will solve the crisis by pressing the Serbian parliament to vote for the law on cooperation with The Hague. This, despite the fact that so far Kostunica was among the most vocal opponents of The Hague.

Analysts point that the JSO protest suits Kostunica in that it undermines Djindjic's authority, as it suggests he does not have clear control over the forces that are supposed to take orders from him.

Daniel Sunter is IWPR Assistant Editor in Belgrade

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