Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Serbia Bids Au Revoir To France With String Of Bizarre Charges
Slobodan Milosevic, facing war crimes charges and almost friendless in the international community, is cutting ties with perhaps the last country in Europe still willing to give Serbia the time of day. France.
On November 26, Yugoslav Information Minister Goran Matic sensationally accused the French secret service of hiring a five-strong squad of mercenaries, codenamed 'Pauk' ('Spider'), to assassinate the Yugoslav president.
Officially France has either refused comment or simply rejects the charges. But in Belgrade the highly public allegations can be read as a shift in Serbian-French relations. Serbia has always looked to France as the European country most friendly - or at least, least hostile - to its position.
But there has been a sudden deterioration in relations in the northern sector of Kosovo, under French military control. Bernard Kouchner, the Frenchman who heads the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has become an ever more frequent target of attack by the Yugoslav regime and the media under its control.
Behind the scenes it signals a definite end to relations between the French and Serbian secret services - which at times has run quite deep.
The five men arrested and held in Belgrade included the alleged leader of the Spider squad, a Kosovo Serb with French citizenship called Jugoslav Petrusic, a former French Foreign Legionnaire also known as 'Yugo Dominik', 'Baladin' or plain 'Dominik'.
There is evidence that Petrusic really did work for both French and Serbian security services, sometimes at the same time. He earned worldwide notoriety as a cold-blooded killer in Zaire, in 1997, when he was hired to train the forces of a long-time French ally, Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Milosevic now wants it known that up to the NATO strikes and the war over Kosovo this year the two country's secret agents cooperated much more closely than Paris now cares to admit. This was especially true in Bosnia, where French forces attached to the SFOR peacekeeping force turned their sector into what Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour into a kind of "safe haven" for the accused war criminals, who could walk freely in front of French soldiers.
This last claim was quite literally true. This journalist was present in Foca, in the French zone of Bosnia, as Serbs known to have been indicted by the Tribunal and French soldiers sipped coffee barely a hundred metres apart. The two 'most wanted' Bosnian Serbs - Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic - remain to this day in the French sector, apparently without fear of arrest.
Relations between the two reached a peak some months before the fall of the UN protected zone of Srebrenica, in spring-summer 1995, during negotiations to free French pilots captured by the Bosnian Serbs.
It has been frequently alleged that the French agreed to block air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs in exchange for the safe release of the pilots, a claim investigated but not substantiated by a UN investigation into the Srebrenica massacre.
In the event, then UN field commander, French general Bernard Janvier, refused the pleas of Dutch UN troops for air strikes to stop the Serb forces overwhelming Srebrenica. Troops led by Mladic - who according to the UN met Janvier three times before the massacre - killed more than 7,000 Bosniaks.
Incidentally, Matic has further claimed that the arrested men were all members of the 10th Commando Unit, accused of carrying out the massacre.
According to Jane's Intelligence Review published in June 1997, Petrusic served with the Bosnian Serb army based out of the Lukavica barracks, on the edge of Sarajevo, and took part in the siege of the city. The Belgrade daily Glas has even alleged, in a November 27 article, that the former French Legionnaire later served alongside French peacekeepers in Bosnia.
The same paper also says he was seen after the fighting travelling with a high official of the French defence ministry during unsuccessful negotiations on the terms under which Radovan Karadzic might surrender to the French military.
Most attention has been focused on Petrusic's already well-documented record a s a particularly brutal mercenary in Zaire. The French company Geolink, which was involved in the shipment of arms and men to Zaire, admits that their principal representative at the time, Phillipe Pierette, was also a member of the French secret service.
Petrusic worked with Pierette on the deal, and the French agent Pierette made several calls on the headquarters of the Yugoslav Army in Belgrade during that time.
Since Matic made Belgrade's version of these events public on November 26, his claims have been repeated and enhanced by the state media. The opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, led by Vuk Draskovic, believes the regime aims to shift the blame for war crimes in Kosovo and Bosnia to the arrested mercenaries and their alleged French secret service colleagues.
Matic alleges that the arrested men had 'infiltrated' the Yugoslav Army (VJ) hinting that it was these men who had been responsible for war crimes in Kosovo, rather than the VJ itself.
Petrusic and other members of the arrested group did fight in Kosovo - notably Milorad Pelemis, former commander of the 10th Commando Unit, who comes from a village near Vlasenica in Kosovo.
"When the NATO strikes began, he gathered some 50 Serbs, former solders in Bosnia from the vicinity of Zvornik, Srebrenica and Bratunac," witness D.T. told Balkan Crisis Reports. "That was no secret for us who live in this area." Nor, it may be assumed, from the Serbian security services.
However Matic also suggests that the arrested men continued to work for the French secret service while in Kosovo - linking them with an attempt to assassinate senior Kosovo guerilla commander Mustafa 'Remi' Rustemi, who, according to Matic, the French believed to be 'out of control'.
Rustemi was seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver in Pristina on November 26. Oddly the Serbian state news agency Tanjug broke the news of the incident before everyone else, even though it has no correspondent in Kosovo. The report wrongly said that Remi had been killed.
In the town of Bijeljina, on the border between Serbia and Serbian Bosnia, and where the brother of one of the arrested still works as a policeman, their friends and family believe that the whole 'French Connection' story is concocted.
They believe the aim is to scapegoat the arrested men for crimes that would otherwise be pinned on senior members of the regime by the Hague Tribunal.
Certainly Matic and others in the state media have sought to shift the blame for a string of alleged Serbian state misdeeds onto the backs of the arrested men. Even an apparent assassination attempt on SPO leader Draskovic has been linked to their works.
Draskovic's motorcade was hit by a truck carrying a load of sand on October 3, killing everyone but Draskovic himself. The driver was never found, but Matic has noted that that one of the arrested was "a specialist in killing with a truck loaded with sand".
For in the mind of Matic and his colleagues, the arrested five have their hands everywhere, even in the government of Montenegro. The government in Podgorica is mounting its own challenge to Milosevic's authority, which is perhaps why it too has become unwillingly embroiled in Matic's accusations.
These claims are more ludicrous, but potentially more dangerous. Matic claims that members of the assassins' gang who escaped capture have crossed into Montenegro and based themselves in camps run by the Montenegrin interior ministry security force (MUP) - where they are allegedly still training for an attempt on Milosevic's life.
The government in Podgorica denounced Matic and rejected the allegation, fearful that the Serbian regime would use it as a pretext to take armed action in Montenegro, which is moving towards possible secession from the Yugoslav federation, which still links it with Serbia. The Montenegrin MUP suspect that the Belgrade regime is secretly building up private paramilitary formations that they plan to use to take over the republic.
The Matic allegations reached their most spurious with claims that Steve Henke, economic advisor to the Montenegrin president and rival to Milosevic, Milo Djukanovic, was also linked to the assassins' gang.
Presumably to discredit the move to a free market and the controversial decision to adopt the German mark as a parallel currency, Matic said Henke, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the US, had also been an advisor to Petrusic's old employer Mobutu Sese Seko.
Henke said he did not wish to add anything to a statement already given to the SENSA news agency in Podgorica: "I have never been an adviser of Mobutu Sese Seko," he said. "Besides, I have never had a business relationship with the government of Zaire (Congo), nor with any Zaire businessman or citizen.
"Actually, I do not know one single Zairian, nor have I ever travelled to Zaire."
Gordana Igric, an award-winning reporter who covered Bosnia and Kosovo, is associate editor for IWPR.
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