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US Pushes for Ojdanic 'Trial Deal'

America may have offered Milosevic's most trusted general lenient tribunal treatment in exchange for testifying against his old boss
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

American diplomats have been working hard to persuade one of Milosevic's top generals to testify against the former Yugoslav president, IWPR sources say.


Retired general Dragoljub Ojdanic, 61, accused of crimes in Kosovo, surrendered voluntarily to The Hague on Thursday, following intense pressure from the Serbian authorities. He is one of six war crimes suspects to have publicly agreed to hand themselves into the tribunal. The other five are expected to leave for the tribunal next week.


Washington has a particular interest in Ojdanic because it believes he could provide vital testimony in the ongoing Milosevic trial.


Before he flew to The Hague, the general swore that he would never give evidence against the ex-Yugoslav president. But IWPR sources suggest he may change his mind in exchange for favourable treatment by the tribunal.


Pierre Richard Prosper, US ambassador for war crimes, is known to have spoken to Ojdanic as a possible Milosevic witness in mid-March. Prosper played a key role in orchestrating the pressure on Belgrade to start full cooperation with The Hague over suspects.


Nebojsa Covic, deputy Serbian prime minister, told the Belgrade media that he arranged the meeting with Prosper and William Montgomery, the US ambassador to Yugoslavia, at a Belgrade villa. "General Ojdanic asked us to provide the contact and that is what we did. The conversation was very correct," he said, without elaborating.


IWPR has learnt from an army officer close to Ojdanic that the Americans tried to persuade the general to get him to testify against Milosevic. The officer, who wishes to remain anonymous, said Ojdanic revealed that Montgomery promised him that "we will put a word in for your case" on his next visit to The Hague.


Sources in the Serbian government say a second meeting with the Americans took place on April 5. The precise nature of discussions there are not known, but the fact that Ojdanic subsequently told his family that he was now prepared to give himself up strongly suggests that some sort of deal was struck.


Analysts in Belgrade have been speculating that Washington will press the tribunal to allow the general to return to Belgrade pending the start of his case.


There appears to be a clear precedent for this. The former Bosnian Serb politician Biljana Plavsic was persuaded by the Americans to surrender voluntarily in January 2001 with what seemed to be a guarantee of pre-trial release.


Ojdanic was indicted on May 24, 1999 for atrocities committed in Kosovo. Milosevic and three other high officials from the Milosevic era - Milan Milutinovic, Nikola Sainovic and Vlajko Stojiljkovic - are indicted for the same crimes.


Stojiljkovic committed suicide earlier this month after the Yugoslav parliament passed a law on cooperation with the tribunal.


According to his indictment, Ojdanic is accused of taking part in a "joint criminal enterprise" whose aim was to "expel a great part of the Albanian population from Kosovo in order to establish permanent Serbian control over the province".


The most important section talks of Ojdanic's command responsibility for the crimes of his subordinates, as head of Serbia's military and police forces in the Kosovo conflict. Ojdanic, however, denies he controlled the police, who were widely blamed for the worst atrocities in the war.


"I did not have any command responsibility over the ministry of interior," he said last Friday. Although he officially supervised all the armed forces, Ojdanic insisted that "this power was never implemented in reality" over the police.


Whether Ojdanic will testify against Milosevic is not clear. Until now, he has always insisted on his loyalty to his old chief. Throughout his career, he showed great devotion to Milosevic, who, in turn, demonstrated enormous trust in his abilities.


Ojdanic earned that trust in the early 1990s as head of the Yugoslav Army's Uzice Corps, when he supervised a brutal Serbian takeover in Visegrad, eastern Bosnia, in 1992, committing numerous crimes against the local Muslim population. There was some surprise later that he was not indicted for his activities in Bosnia.


He was rewarded with promotion to the rank of commander of the prestigious First Belgrade division in 1993. From 1996 he was deputy to the army's chief of staff, General Momcilo Perisic. Ojdanic became close to the Yugoslav United Left, JUL, the party led by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic. Violating the army's official code of neutrality, he even appeared at a JUL meeting in army uniform.


His close ties to the Milosevic clan culminated in his nomination as chief of staff in November 1998, when Milosevic dismissed Perisic just before the launch of the campaign in Kosovo. He became defence minister in February 2000 after the mysterious assassination of Pavle Bulatovic.


Milosevic's continuing faith in Ojdanic was shown when he sent him to Russia in May 2000 to seek military help in the aftermath of the war with NATO. His career collapsed when Milosevic was ousted six months later, after which Ojdanic was dismissed.


At his first hearing before the tribunal on Friday, Ojdanic pleaded not guilty. In interviews with the media before his departure to The Hague, the general made it clear he was preparing a vigorous defence. He claimed the Albanians were not forcibly deported from Kosovo but left under the orders of their separatist leaders.


He appears to have started collecting documentation for his trial while defence minister. Most of the material is thought to deal with military investigations into alleged war crimes. The army certainly made some inquiries into atrocities, though no one was ever tried as a result of them.


Ojdanic's surrender comes at a time when Serbia is under pressure to extradite war crimes suspects, or face the loss of 115 million dollars worth of US aid as well as obstacles to joining key international financial bodies.


As the Milosevic trial over Kosovo is far advanced, Ojdanic is unlikely to be tried together with him. A joint trial with Sainovic and Milutinovic appears more likely.


Until then, his lawyers will try to secure his temporary release. If he consents to testify against Milosevic, fulfilling American expectations, he might yet become the most important indictee -after Milosevic - to have set foot in The Hague.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor-in-chief of Blicnews magazine