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Spy Claim Saga Fuels Rift in Serbia

March 16, 2002

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BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ The military said Saturday it might charge Serbia’s deputy prime minister with spying for the United States, fueling tensions between the Serbian leadership and army hard-liners left over from the era of Slobodan Milosevic.

The arrest of Momcilo Perisic on Thursday has angered Washington, which protested the treatment of an American diplomat in the case. The diplomat was detained along with Perisic and held for 15 hours, at one point reportedly with a hood over his head.

The diplomat was released Friday, and Perisic was freed Saturday. But controversy boiled over the detentions, which highlighted a rift between hard-line generals, backed by the Yugoslav president, and Serb leaders trying to impose civilian control on the military.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said his deputy had been ``set up″ and that military intelligence was ``out of control.″

An adviser to the president of Montenegro, which along with Serbia makes up the Yugoslav federation, said the federal army was becoming ``increasingly dangerous.″

The arrest ``demonstrates that the military is not subject to any parliamentary or civilian control,″ said the adviser, Blagoje Grahovac.

Military agents snatched Perisic and the U.S. diplomat, whom they identified as John David Neighbor, on Thursday night as the two dined together in a restaurant. Perisic was held on suspicion of passing secret documents to the American.

Perisic and two other Yugoslavs arrested as well were released without charge. But the military said Saturday that evidence pointed to ``the criminal act of espionage,″ and the military prosecutor’s office said it would examine the evidence to determine in the next few weeks whether to indict or not.

``I do not consider myself guilty,″ Perisic told the independent Beta news agency after his release. His aide, Nebojsa Mandic, said Perisic was ``ready to appear before state authorities ... and reveal a plot against him and the people of Serbia.″

Perisic was the head of the Yugoslav military until then-President Milosevic fired him in 1998 for criticizing the army’s campaign in Kosovo. Since Milosevic’s fall in 2000, Perisic has continued his criticism, saying Yugoslavia cannot grow closer to NATO until hard-line commanders from the war against the alliance are sacked.

The army also distrusts Djindjic, who promotes close links with Washington. It has not forgiven the Serbian prime minister and his government for delivering Milosevic to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands, where he is now on trial for alleged atrocities during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica defended the army’s actions as being within legal limits.

``Everything should be done to determine the real truth on the basis of evidence,″ Kostunica said. The president, a nationalist who opposes handing over suspects to the Netherlands-based war crimes court, has been an intense political rival of Djindjic.

The Yugoslav military said Saturday its arrest of Perisic had broken up ``illegal activity.″ It said one of the suspects in the case, Lt. Col. Miodrag Sekulic, had furnished Perisic with confidential documents, ``some of which he later passed on to a foreign citizen.″

Perisic’s aide, Mandic, denied that Perisic had any such documents, and Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic accused military agents of planting incriminating documents in Perisic’s briefcase.

The United States was ``forcefully protesting″ the treatment of the diplomat and ``this apparent move against an elected Serbian civilian official,″ State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.

The arrest comes as Djindjic has been pressing for reforms to bring the military under civilian control. Kostunica and military hard-liners favor less radical changes such as reducing the army’s size and reorganizing its command structure.

``This is the first time a serious attempt is being made to limit (the military’s) freedom of action and to make it accountable to democratically elected institutions,″ said Tanja Petovar, a coordinator for the Southeast European Democracy Support Network, a Brussels-based consultancy.

After World War II, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, himself a field marshall, used the army to crush any opposition to communist rule. In return, the generals got a free hand to run the military and to build a commercial empire.

In the early 1990s, the military backed Milosevic in his effort to carve out an enlarged Serbia from the remains of the old, six-member federation. However, after losing four wars in the past decade, the army has been additionally humiliated by revelations of human rights abuses and war crimes.

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