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Protest Delays Start of Croatian Defense Minister’s Job

April 8, 1991

ZAGREB, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Rock-throwing protesters on Monday forced the postponement of the trial in absentia of Croatia’s defense minister, who stands accused of armed rebellion against Yugoslavia’s army.

About 2,000 protesters gathered in front of a military court in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, to protest the opening of the trial of minister Martin Spegelj and seven co-defendants.

If found guilty, Spegelj and the others could receive terms of life in prison.

The trial was likely to raise tensions between the federal army and the independence-minded western republic, which are already running high.

The federal army’s officer corps is largely ethnic Serbian and pro- Communist. It is at odds with the pro-Western governments of Slovenia and Croatia over the issue of the country’s future structure.

The two northern states want to transform Yugoslavia into a political and economic coalition of independent nations, while Marxist-ruled Serbia, the largest of the country’s six states, and the military leadership want a centralized federation.

Slovenia and Croatia have repeatedly accused the army of siding with Serbia’s hard-line President Slobodan Milosevic against them.

At the downtown court building, demonstrators, chanting ″Freedom 3/8″ and waving Croatian flags, pushed aside a cordon of riot police and stoned the building. They broke several windows before riot police dispersed them.

No one was reported injured.

The presiding judge, Capt. Mile Vignjevic, declared the proceedings ″indefinitely adjourned″ due to the disturbance.

Spegelj, a retired general who was last year named defense minister in the center-right government of Yugoslavia’s second-largest state, is being accused of ″armed rebellion against Yugoslavia.″

Croatia has refused to hand Spegelj over to military judicial authorities who have accused him of buying thousands of weapons in preparation for an uprising against the Communist-dominated army.

While he is being tried in absentia, the seven others charged with him have been held in a military stockade since February.

Last January, the army broadcast a secretly filmed television documentary purporting to show Spegelj conspiring to illegally import about 10,000 Kalashnikov automatic rifles from Hungary.

Spegelj said Croatia had legally purchased the guns to equip its regular police force after the military impounded almost a quarter of a million weapons from the state’s territorial defense militia last year.

A military prosecutor ordered Spegelj’s arrest after the showing of the film. But Croatia says he has immunity as a member of the republic’s Cabinet.

″This is a staged trial,″ Croatia’s president Franjo Tudjman told a news conference. The defendants ″are not guilty at all because they only carried out orders by the Croatian government,″ he said.

Spegelj has moved openly in public despite the military’s call for his arrest, but has been under heavy police guard.

Early Monday, Croatian police fired at Serb nationalists manning a barricade in Dalj, a village in northern Croatia, the Tanjug news agency reported. No one was injured, the Tanjug news agency said.

Some Serbs in Croatia want to secede from the republic and join Serbia.

Several explosions shook the Serbian stronghold of Knin in western Croatia during the night, Tanjug reported. There were no reported injuries, but the blasts damaged a house and a restaurant owned by Croatians, it said.

The army was sent into an ethnic Serb region of Croatia last week to separate the two ethnic groups after a clash at a national park in which two people were killed and 21 injured.

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