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Serbia: Vasiljevic Implicates Milosevic

Former army general's evidence at the Milosevic trial boosts prosecution's prospects of securing a guilty verdict.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Testimony by a key witness in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic that wartime paramilitary units were placed under the direct control of the Serbian interior ministry is being seen by analysts here as an attempt to distance the Yugoslav army from responsibility for war crimes.

General Aleksandar Vasiljevic, the former head of Yugoslav army military intelligence, who has been giving evidence in The Hague, has outlined his understanding of a chain of command linking Milosevic, the Serbian police force, the secret services and paramilitary organisations, which committed most of the crimes in the wars waged in former Yugoslavia.

The testimony has boosted the prosecution's chances of securing a guilty verdict against Milosevic. It also raised the issue of possible indictments being raised against Jovica Stanisic, the influential former secret service chief from 1991 to 1998, and several paramilitary leaders against whom no indictments have been raised thus far.

Vasiljevic spoke of a so-called command link, which, the prosecution maintains, comprised a hierarchical chain of command leading down from Milosevic via the heads of the secret police and regular police to the paramilitary bosses.

Vasiljevic said this chain of command was established in the early Nineties by the police and the secret service, at a time when they were drafting people with criminal records into newly formed paramilitary units.

The witness confirmed that the Serbian police armed and controlled these units, which concentrated their actions in eastern Slavonia, the territory bordering Serbia where fighting between Serbs and Croats erupted in May 1991.

"There was a unit organised by Mirko Jovic, leader of the ultra-nationalist political party Serbian National Renewal, under the name of 'Dusan Silni' (Dushan the Mighty), whose members were direct perpetrators of the crime in the village of Lovas," he said.

Vasiljevic was referring to the village near the border town of Vukovar where according to the indictment against Milosevic, this paramilitary formation forced Croatian civilians to walk through a minefield, killing 20 villagers.

He then mentioned a paramilitary unit called "Crnogorac" (Montenegrin) led by the then Serbian deputy interior minister, Radovan Stojicic Badza, who was assassinated in a Belgrade restaurant in April 1997.

The witness also spoke of a paramilitary unit named the "Tigers", which he said enjoyed preferential treatment from the Serbian interior affairs ministry.

The unit was led by Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan", one of the most powerful bosses of the Belgrade underworld, who was assassinated in January 2000.

Asked by the prosecutor to comment about paramilitary units led by the Radical Party leader and Milosevic ally Vojislav Seselj, Vasiljevic reminded the court of Seselj's own public statements, in which he said he recruited volunteers on Stanisic's orders, who then received equipment and arms from the secret service.

"No one from the Serbian interior ministry denied this, so I believe Seselj's claims are credible," he said.

Vasiljevic accused the paramilitaries of the mass murder of 160 Croatian prisoners of war, executed at the Ovcara farm, near Vukovar, after Serb and Yugoslav forces took the town in November 1991.

Although the 80th motorised brigade of the Yugoslav army, from Kragujevac in central Serbia, guarded the prisoners, Vasiljevic said local Vukovar members of the territorial defence, the local paramilitary group, executed the men.

Serbian analysts do not dispute Vaslijevic's testimony, though they maintain he has downplayed the role of the army in war crimes committed in former Yugoslavia.

Endeavouring to shift responsibility for atrocities from the army to paramilitary units, police and state security service, Vasiljevic said the army general staff demanded that Stojicic remove Arkan's groups from eastern Slavonia.

"Badza's reply was that there would be no problems, because he would incorporate the Tigers into a special police force unit formed by the Serbian interior ministry," Vasiljevic said.

Vasiljevic's most serious accusation concerns his eyewitness testimony, according to which Milosevic knew about the crimes committed against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the 1999 conflict and failed to punish the perpetrators.

The witness claimed that on May 17, 1999, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, then Yugoslav army commander in Kosovo, and Radomir Markovic, Stanisic's successor in the secret service, informed Milosevic of Serb crimes against Albanians in the province.

He said Milosevic had ordered "drastic cases" of crimes to "be immediately resolved and closed" but rejected Pavkovic's suggestion to form a state commission to investigate what had happened.

Vasiljevic is himself the subject of an official investigation for war crimes in The Hague. Although his name is on the list of 18 persons named in the indictment against Milosevic as participants in a joint criminal enterprise, he has cooperated closely with the tribunal.

He is the only military official to have responded so far to the invitation of the tribunal's Belgrade office to tell the court what he knows, without seeking prior permission to do so from the authorities in Belgrade.

Unlike other Milosevic insiders who are also suspects, such as Milan Babic, a former leader of the Serb break-away state in Croatia, the Serbian Republic of Krajina, who testified last December, Vasiljevic's motive for testifying did not appear linked to the fact that he was on the suspects list.

A close friend in whom he confided before leaving for The Hague said his motive was primarily a desire to clear the Yugoslav army's name.

Vasiljevic's career was marked by constant clashes with Milosevic and the general belonged to a pro-Yugoslav faction of army officers that opposed dividing the army on national lines.

Regarded as one of the army's best military intelligence officers, Vasiljevic was dismissed in a purge of non-nationalist generals by Milosevic in May 1992. He was arrested and detained on suspicion of corruption and "abuse of power", but released after seven months without charge.

On release, with a couple of other retired generals who were political sympathisers, the general became close to New Democracy, a party led by the current Serbian interior minister, Dusan Mihajlovic. At the time, the party was in coalition with Milosevic.

The imminent threat of NATO bombardment in March 1999 jogged Milosevic's memory about his talents and he was appointed deputy head of the Yugoslav army's intelligence service.

The return to high office gave Vasiljevic the chance to settle scores with Milosevic. Several General Staff sources confirmed that in the dramatic night of October 5-6, 2000 he used his authority to stop hawks amongst the army's top brass from intervening to prevent Milosevic's overthrow in October 2000.

It came as a shock in 2001, after Milosevic was in The Hague, to discover he had been named as a suspect in the indictment against Milosevic for crimes committed in Croatia.

"I was particularly surprised by the fact that my name was listed together with those people who had removed me from office and caused so many troubles and difficulties in my life," Vasiljevic told the Belgrade magazine NIN in October 2001.

Vasiljevic's testimony may give a fillip to the prosecution and even pave the way for the eventual testimony of the key insider - Stanisic himself, the man most familiar with Milosevic's secrets.

Such an outcome is not improbable as Stanisic parted ways with Milosevic in 1998 over Serbian policy in Kosovo, and has been Milosevic's bitter enemy ever since. The only unresolved issue appears to be whether he turns up on the witness stand, or in the dock.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor of the Belgrade weekly Blic News.