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Serbia: Security Chief Dogged by War Crimes Claims

Government sticks by new head of military intelligence despite allegations that he took part in Kosovo massacres.
By Milanka Saponja-Hadjic

The controversial appointment of an army officer accused of war crimes as the new head of the army's security service is coming under increasing scrutiny.


Disquiet has focused on allegations that Momir Stojanovic broke Geneva conventions during the conflict in Kosovo, by ordering a massacre of ethnic Albanians.


The government, however, is believed to have selected Stojanovic in March in the hope that he will accelerate the reform of the army and cut the secret ties known to exist between intelligence officers and the former Bosnian Serb military leader, General Ratko Mladic.


Government sources argue that he is the only man at the moment who is loyal to the government and who might succeed to disrupt those secret communications, eventually leading to Mladic's transfer to the Hague tribunal.


Foreign governments continue to press the Serbian-Montenegrin authorities over Mladic, and the case remains a bar to Serbia's rapprochement with the West and to the wider military and economic integration process.


Mladic's extradition, along with other indicted war criminals, is a prerequisite for the admission of Serbia-Montenegro into NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, for example.


Membership remained virtually out of the question while military and security circles maintained clandestine support for these wanted men.


Stojanovic's military activities during the war in Kosovo were publicly aired in The Hague during the trial of Slobodan Milosevic.


As part of his witness testimony at the war crimes court on May 9, 2002, a former Yugoslav army officer, Nik Peraj, named Stojanovic as one of those who were responsible for planning and carrying out the largest single mass execution in Kosovo during the NATO bombing campaign.


Peraj said Stojanovic ordered the killing of over one hundred Kosovo Albanians in the villages of Meje and Korenice on April 27, 1999. The corpses were exhumed in late 2000 from a mass grave in Batajnica, near Belgrade.


Peraj testified that he had been present in April 1999 at an informal meeting in a private house in Djakovica, Kosovo, near the army barracks, which many army and police officials attended.


Less than a week after the massacre had taken place, Peraj said he heard Stojanovic reassuring subordinate officers that he would protect them against any possible revenge. In addition, he mentioned his close friendship with General Nebojsa Pavkovic, the former army chief of staff, sacked by Vojislav Kostunica, the last president of Yugoslavia.


Peraj said he was also at the army brigade headquarters in Djakovica on April 28, 1999, when Major Zdravko Vinter was compiling a report for the Third Army command in Nis, in the aftermath of the massacre in Meje and Korenica. "Zdravko Vinter stated in his report that 74 terrorists were killed in Korenica and 68 in Meja," said Peraj.


Peraj is not the only witness to have mentioned Stojanovic at The Hague. General Aleksandar Vasiljevic, taking the stand as a prosecution witness at Milosevic's trial on February 13, 2003, mentioned the colonel as a member of the army and police joint command in Kosovo, formed in 1998 and based in Djakovica.


Natasa Kandic, director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Fund, says the claims need to be tested and cleared up before the appointment is allowed to stand.


"It would be in the best interest of the state and of Colonel Stojanovic himself that his responsibility be determined by the competent state bodies," she said.


"The investigation should entail the interrogation of other witnesses mentioned as participants in the meeting at which Colonel Stojanovic allegedly issued orders to execute 'at least a hundred' Albanians and set fire to their homes in revenge for the murder of Milutin Prascevic, an interior ministry officer."


Stojanovic has denied the allegations. Meanwhile, the president of Serbia-Montenegro and chairman of the supreme defence council, Svetozar Marovic, and the defence minister, Boris Tadic, have pledged to investigate the claims.


A source from the Army of Serbia-Montenegro told IWPR that Stojanovic had the reputation of a capable professional who was close to Pavkovic.


A bitter political rival of the murdered Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, Kostunica ousted Pavkovic when he discovered the general had become close to the slain premier.


The same military source said Stojanovic was appointed head of the army security service as a temporary solution, with the prior approval of international organisations now assisting the reform of the Serbian-Montenegrin military.


"His task is to help get rid of the most controversial generals and lay the foundations in the army structures needed for the extradition of Mladic to the Hague tribunal," the source added.


This will not be easy. The military security service is seen as the most conservative section of the army and as an obstacle to cooperation with the tribunal. It has functioned as an influential alternative power centre within the armed forces and the state for years. Its members were usually more interested in ensuring the selection of officers who shared their politics than in protecting the military from foreign intelligence services.


This power centre, known for its anti-western and anti-Hague sentiment, has for the past three years been under the control of the conservative former Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica.


Only after Kostunica left the political stage, following the formation of the new state of Serbia-Montenegro at the beginning of the year, did the military security service and the army come under the control of reform-minded elements in government.


Momir Stojanovic then replaced General Aco Tomic, who had close links to Kostunica, as new head of the former.


Tomic's name was linked to several political scandals, including the plan to storm the Serbian government’s communications bureau and the arrest of the deputy prime minister, Momcilo Perisic, along with a US diplomat.


During the police action after the murder of Zoran Djindjic, the police arrested Tomic on suspicion that he had ties with the Zemun gang alleged to have organised Djindjic's assassination.


"In its long history the military security service often infringed on the competencies of the other intelligence services," said Aleksandar Radic, an independent military analyst from Belgrade.


"It often permitted itself to intercept the chain of command and take part in armed conflicts. It was always much more influential then other centres of power."


Ljubodrag Stojadinovic, a military analyst from the daily newspaper Politika, told IWPR that that service "never exposed a single enemy of the army but was always searching for internal enemies - the most popular target in all communist countries".


Radic said placing the service under civilian control would not be sufficient to see through needed reforms, unless the entire work of the military security service was thoroughly examined at the same time. "Its future depends on the extent of this examination," he said.


The problem, according to analysts, is that it would be hard to find another man for the job who was not already compromised by involvement in corruption or war crimes - and who was also loyal to the new authorities.


The choice of Stojanovic looks like a temporary solution, therefore, for no Serbian politician will want to link his own political destiny for long with such a controversial army officer.


Milanka Saponja-Hadjic is IWPR contributor in Belgrade