Serbia: Red Beret Revolt

A rebellion by special forces this week threatened to overthrow the Serbian government.

Serbia: Red Beret Revolt

A rebellion by special forces this week threatened to overthrow the Serbian government.

The arrest of two war crimes suspects in Belgrade has sparked an uprising by over 100 members of the notorious "Red Beret" special forces. The elite troops have refused to obey orders and yesterday, Monday, they descended on Belgrade, raising fears of a coup d'etat.


As the rebellion enters its fifth day, many are speculating that Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic could well end up paying a heavy price for not cutting his links with the notorious police unit which may soon become the target of The Hague tribunal.


Djindjic relied on the Red Berets, the special operations unit of the Serbian state security apparatus, to help overthrow Slobodan Milosevic on October 5, 2000. The unit had played an active role in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo and is also suspected by some of having carried out political assassinations for Slobodan Milosevic. Critics say that Djindjic made a Faustian pact which is now threatening the future of his government.


The drama began last Thursday morning, with the arrest - by five Red Berets - of Predrag and Nenad Banovic, 32-year-old twins accused of committing atrocities at Keraterm camp in north-west Bosnia. The brothers were detained at the market in the Belgrade suburb of Obrenovac, where they have sold vegetables for the last five years.


The order for the arrest was issued verbally by secret police chief Goran Petrovic, who did not disclose the identity of the suspects. The special forces were furious when they realised they had been "duped" into conducting the "unpatriotic" arrest of indicted war crimes suspects who were then immediately extradited to The Hague.


The next morning, Petrovic realised that the Red Berets who normally guard his residence in the exclusive Belgrade suburb of Dedinje had been removed. Guards also disappeared from outside the Institute for Security in Banjica, near Belgrade. IWPR sources say that Petrovic and his deputy Zoran Mijatovic then spent the morning trying to contact the commander of the unit Dusan Marcic, known as "Gumara".


By the afternoon, it emerged that Marcic had gathered over 100 Red Berets from bases around Serbia at the unit's headquarters in the outskirts of Kula, Vojvodina. From there, they issued Petrovic and the Djindjic government with a series of demands which all amount to the same thing: the government must cease all cooperation with The Hague.


The rebels demanded the following: the resignation of police minister Dusan Mihajlovic, whom they hold ultimately responsible for duping them; the cessation of all "unconstitutional" arrests of war crimes suspects until the Yugoslav parliament passes legislation formalising its cooperation with The Hague; and an assurance that Red Berets will not be required to make future "Hague arrests".


Yesterday, Monday, the special forces drove the 100 km from Kula to Belgrade in a convoy of 20 four-wheel drive Hummer vehicles, politicians in the capital waited to see if they were about to mount a coup d'etat, knowing that no military force in the city could resist them.


The Red Berets satisfied themselves with massing on the left bank of the Sava, in full view of all the state institutions on the right bank. They also blocked the Belgrade-Nis highway, south of the city, before turning back to Vojvodina. A potent message had been delivered, if they wished the special forces could take over the capital with lightning speed.


The protest leaves Zoran Djindjic with an unpleasant choice. He can suspend cooperation with The Hague, thereby sacrificing foreign aid and jeopardizing the reform process. Or he can refuse to compromise with the Red Berets, risking that next time they might walk the extra km to his office.


The special forces are known to have many sympathisers within the police and army and the situation will become more dangerous if they form an alliance with the powerful anti-Hague lobby within the armed forces. Some have accused the commander-in-chief Nebojsa Pavkovic of involvement, but this seems unlikely since Pavkovic has always regarded the Red Berets rivals.


Some in Belgrade are saying that President Kostunica has a hand in the uprising. Certainly, Kostunica and Djindjic's rivalry is well known, but sources close to the Red Berets say that there are only three men who could incite them to take such a radical step.


The first is Jovica Stanisic, Slobodan Milosevic's former secret police chief. The ex Yugoslav president dismissed him in 1998 when he opposed his policy on Kosovo. Stanisic, whom Djindjic courted after Milosevic's fall, is seriously ill and therefore unlikely to be directly involved. The second is Franko Simatovic, the former chief of the Red Berets. Milosevic dismissed him following the Dayton Accords, but he still retains influence over the unit. He too has been courted by Djindjic. The third is Milorad Ulemek, or "Legija". He was the special forces chief on October 5, 2000, and ordered his men not to intervene against the opposition.


The opposition had little choice but to rely on special forces to topple Milosevic and afterwards Djindjic pledged he would protect the interests of the Red Berets. Within a year, however, he gave in to public pressure to replace Ulemek as chief. Meanwhile, on a visit to Belgrade last month Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte publicly announced that the tribunal is investigating Stanisic and Simatovic.


Technically, the Red Berets are right to complain that the extradition of the Banovics was unconstitutional. Yugoslavia has still not passed an extradition law, despite the obligation as a UN member to transfer war crimes suspects to The Hague. After much delay, legislation regulating Yugoslavia's cooperation with international courts has been passing through the federal parliament, but the law will only cover those courts recognised by the federal constitution.


The Yugoslav constitutional court has already acknowledged that the constitution does not recognise The Hague.


Serbia must extradite suspects to The Hague to receive foreign aid, a fact which Zoran Djindjic acknowledged yet again last week during a visit to Washington. He also agreed to open all military and police files to investigators, which could open to way to yet more indictments. Meanwhile, the lack of consensus over the extradition legislation has created a legal vacuum in which no one is prepared to take the responsibility for the transfer of war crime suspects to the tribunal.


On Saturday, Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic - who supports cooperation with the tribunal - told Beta news agency that he had not been informed of the Banovics' arrest, which was an "autonomous act by the ministry of police". This would make the arrest illegal, as the police are only meant to carry such out such actions on the orders of the ministry of justice. In turn, police minister Mihajlovic refused to issue a written order for the arrest, preferring to transfer responsibility to the Red Berets.


As the stand-off with the Red Berets continues, critics argue that Djindjic is paying the price for his own opportunism. Instead of demolishing Milosevic's tools of repression, both he and Kostunica preferred to keep the apparatus for their own use - Kostunica exercising influence over the army, Djindjic over the police forces. Now the Red Berets have shown they have lost confidence in the Serbian premier as a protector and are making overtures to Kostunica's side.


A passive opponent of The Hague, Kostunica looks set to appear on the scene over the next few days. He probably did nothing to provoke this incident, but he may well offer himself as a mediator in order to score points over Djindjic - if the Red Berets don't decide to take over key state institutions in the meantime.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a journalist with the Belgrade weekly Blic News


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