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Serb General to Stand Trial for Kosovo Crimes

Sreten Lukic arrives in The Hague after months of wrangling over his health.
By Daniel Sunter

Senior Serbian general Sreten Lukic, implicated in a campaign to drive thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians from their Kosovo homes in 1999, has arrived in The Hague after months of delays.

Lukic, who has repeatedly claimed he is too ill to stand trial, was transferred into UN custody on April 4, a week after undergoing surgery on a blood vessel in Belgrade.

Having risen to the top of the police service under former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, and survived the transition to democratic government after the collapse of that regime, Lukic was indicted by the tribunal in October 2003.

He is charged jointly along with three other high-profile Serbian generals for massacres and deportations allegedly carried out by Belgrade security forces during fighting with Albanian rebels in Kosovo.

The only one of his co-indictees to give himself up so far is Vladimir Lazarevic, who pleaded not guilty to the same charges in February.

Lukic - born in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad in 1955 - first came to prominence in June 1998, as the conflict between the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, and government security forces intensified. At the time he was head of the Serbian Interior Ministry, MUP, staff for Kosovo, a post he held until Serb troops withdrew the following year.

Prosecutors say in the intervening period Serbian forces murdered and intimidated Albanians in Kosovo and drove them from their homes, in an effort to secure Serb control over the entity.

Amongst the incidents listed in the indictment against Lukic and his co-indictees is the now infamous massacre in the village of Racak on January 15, 1999, where international observers and local residents say Serb security forces executed 45 Albanian civilians.

At the time, the Serbian government claimed the victims were members of the KLA who had been killed in armed combat with security forces.

But on January 28, 1999, the Washington Post published details of a series of telephone conversations between Lukic and the then Serbian deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic, in which they discussed ways of covering up what had taken place in the village.

After Slobodan Milosevic's regime was ousted on October 5, 2000, a number of senior Serbian police officials stepped down. But Lukic, now a trustworthy ally of Serbia's new democratic authorities, remained in place and in 2001 became head of the public security department, the highest MUP post open to a police officer in uniform.

Government sources say Lukic was given the job because the new authorities needed to maintain control over the police apparatus, which for many years had been the backbone of the Milosevic regime. Lukic is reckoned to have had significant influence within the police force.

The government also needed an experienced police official to combat organised crime, which had escalated to unprecedented levels during the Milosevic era and had become inextricably connected with the secret services and other state institutions.

Lukic's appointment, however, came in for strong criticism from the media and human rights bodies, who were quick to underline the important role he played in the conflict in Kosovo.

After his inauguration, Human Rights Watch said the interior ministry's staff policy raised serious concerns about the new government's commitment to human rights and accountability.

As head of Serbia's public security department, Lukic led Operation Sabre, the massive assault on organised crime that following the assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic on March 12, 2003. Around 10,000 people were arrested in one of the biggest police operations Serbia has ever seen.

When their indictment was issued in late 2003, the Serbian government refused to hand Lukic and his co-indictees over to the Hague tribunal, demanding that Serbia's own justice system be allowed to deal with the case.

The interior minister at the time, Dusan Mihajlovic, added his support for Lukic, describing him as his "right-hand man" in carrying out police reforms and the "hero" of Operation Sabre.

Lukic's continuing popularity within the ranks of the Serbian authorities was further illustrated in October 2003, when several thousand uniformed police officers staged a rally - which was effectively organised by the interior ministry and the government itself - to show their support for him.

But when a new coalition government - headed by the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS - took power in 2004, its leader Vojislav Kostunica sacked Lukic, along with a number of other police officials, as part of an effort to take control of the interior ministry and the secret service.

On September 30 last year, Lukic turned up in person at the Belgrade district court to receive the Hague indictment against him, accompanied by his lawyer and police bodyguards.

Sources close to Lukic say his plans to turn himself in have since been delayed by health problems, though tribunal medical experts who have examined him in Belgrade say he is fit to stand trial.

Lukic is related to Milan Lukic and Sredoje Lukic, also from Visegrad, both of whom are accused of committing atrocities against Bosnian Muslim civilians as part of a Serb paramilitary unit known as "The White Eagles".

Lukic's transfer to The Hague leaves 13 fugitives still at large, including his co-indictees Vlastimir Djordjevic and Nebojsa Pavkovic. Serbian internal affairs minister Dragan Jocic told Belgrade radio station B92 on April 2 that a warrant has been issued for Pavkovic's arrest and that a search was underway.

Daniel Sunter is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade.

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