Milosevic Is Arrested By Serb Police
Yugoslav Ex-Leader Ends Standoff

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 1, 2001; Page A01

 

BELGRADE, April 1 (Sunday) -- Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was arrested by police at 4 a.m. today and whisked to the Belgrade central prison after officials of his political party struck an agreement with the government to avoid a bloody confrontation at his villa, according to Serbian Interior Ministry officials.

It was a dramatic yet surprisingly peaceful end to a turbulent day and a half in which Milosevic had repeatedly pledged not to be taken alive. The 59-year-old former president, who once ruled with absolute authority, bowed to the demands of a Serbian government that he face charges of abuse of power and theft of state funds.

Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic, asked by reporters what had influenced Milosevic's decision to surrender, said the former president was reassured that he was not being apprehended on war crimes charges. An Interior Ministry statement, issued immediately after the arrest, said the charges facing Milosevic were not related to his indictment by a United Nations tribunal for war crimes.

Milosevic gave up after the government made clear it was prepared to take him by force, and a senior government official denied that any concessions were made. After a day in which the army and the police appeared to be divided over the Milosevic arrest, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica declared that "if the state is to survive, no one can be untouchable. . . . We shall not allow the state to plunge into crisis over one individual." Later, the interior minister said that Kostunica's statement had also had an effect on Milosevic's decision to surrender.

After the deal was struck early today, three Audi vehicles lined up at the back door of the villa where Milosevic had been holed up and took him to the Belgrade central prison, officials said. Although the Interior Ministry said there was no resistance during the arrest, a shot was heard at the scene and officials said it was fired by Milosevic's daughter, Marija.

An official of Milosevic's Socialist Party said the former president would be tried for domestic crimes, not war crimes. Milosevic was indicted for war crimes in 1999 and is wanted for trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Milosevic's surrender reflected an abrupt turnaround from his threats at a private meeting several hours earlier, when both Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana, told Cedomir Jovanovic, an emissary of the Serbian prime minister, that they would not be taken alive. Milosevic had a pistol with him during the meeting, officials said, and police took seriously the prospect of a violent clash.

The tense standoff came after two armed assaults on the villa by police commandos were repulsed. Roughly 40 people were still holed up with Milosevic, and they had an arsenal of heavy weaponry at their disposal, police said. The weapons, including anti-tank grenades and heavy machine guns, were evidently left behind by a Yugoslav army unit that withdrew from the villa Saturday, after blocking the police units attempting to serve Milosevic with an arrest warrant.

The army's role in obstructing the police in the first raid has provoked enormous controversy, and fresh criticism of the army chief of staff, Nebojsa Pavkovic, a general appointed by Milosevic and retained by Kostunica over the objections of many other members of the 18-party governing coalition.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and Interior Minister Mihajlovic both alleged that the army -- which Kostunica ostensibly controls -- had demonstrated continuing loyalty to Milosevic. But Pavkovic insisted during a rancorous, closed government meeting that the only reason the army unit had not withdrawn was that he never got proper written instructions.

"We have good cooperation with the police," Pavkovic told reporters at one point. He said the unit was not defending Milosevic but "other objects" inside the residential compound at 11 Uzicka St., in a well-to-do neighborhood west of the city center.

Despite a broad consensus in the government that the arrest should be carried out peacefully, several officials said they had become convinced on Saturday of the need to act quickly to enforce the arrest warrant. The officials expressed concern that Milosevic's strategy was to buy time and try to stoke political tensions that would impede his arrest.

Officials also said they worried that radical military veterans loyal to Milosevic might converge on the scene, further complicating an arrest that foreign governments have said they expected Yugoslavia to achieve successfully. On Saturday, the veterans did not materialize, and several hundred competing, pro- and anti-Milosevic protesters who scuffled briefly were all moved more than 400 yards away by nightfall.

The U.S. Congress last year gave Belgrade a March 31 deadline to demonstrate cooperation with the U.N. tribunal or face an aid cutoff. Officials expect Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to make an announcement about the certification on Monday. The White House said Saturday it was monitoring the situation closely.

At stake is $50 million in U.S. assistance that has not yet been disbursed. The Yugoslav government had sought to appease Washington partly by arresting Milosevic on domestic criminal charges -- laying the groundwork for his eventual extradition to the tribunal, some officials said.

Kostunica has consistently expressed opposition to Milosevic's extradition, although he did not attempt to interfere with the arrest by Serbian police, officials said. After Saturday's private meeting of top officials, Kostunica said that "no man, including Mr. Milosevic, is worthy of civilian clashes and bloodshed," but added that the former president was obligated to accept the court summons because anyone "who obstructs the execution of laws must bear consequences, no matter his rank and function."

Kostunica was traveling in Switzerland when the initial arrest attempt began on Friday and was not informed in advance about details of the plan, officials said. But with liberal members of the government standing stiffly beside him, Kostunica on Saturday gave it his lukewarm blessing, saying that those who "begin doing something must finish it, taking into consideration the laws and possible overall consequences."

Milosevic was formally indicted on Friday for abusing his official position and conspiring with others to steal almost $100 million from the government to benefit unnamed individuals and the Socialist Party he headed for a decade, top officials said at an earlier news conference.

Four of Milosevic's closest former aides were also indicted, including customs chief Mikhail Kertes, secret police chief Rade Markovic, and Yugoslav vice presidents Jovan Zebic and Nikola Sainovic. Only Markovic and Kertes are in jail; Zebic and Sainovic still have immunity from arrest as members of parliament.

Slobodan Orlic, the federal information minister, explained Saturday that the indictments were based in part on newly discovered receipts directly tying Milosevic to the diversion of funds from the customs bureau. But other officials said new charges would be added to the indictment because of the confrontation at the villa, including a charge of resisting arrest and illegal possession of firearms.

The confrontation began, officials said, with an attempt by Serbian government officials to lay the groundwork for Milosevic's arrest by reorganizing the security forces at his residence.

After administratively abolishing a special 74-member group of presidential guards, the government declared that only one person should henceforth be assigned to protect Milosevic. Most of the special guard force agreed to be transferred on Friday, but 16 members of the force refused, said Mihajlovic, the interior minister.

"We have been informed that some of them have asked . . . Milosevic to retain them as his private security and keep them on his payroll," he said.

But a larger problem was posed by a Yugoslav army brigade at the residence commanded by a general considered close to Milosevic, Milivojae Bogovic. According to Mihajlovic, members of the brigade for hours barred entry to the residence by special police, taking their orders directly from Milosevic's aides. Eventually, they relented, but turned over the gate keys to Milosevic's private security staff.

This group was headed by Sinisa Vucinic, the head of a radical political party affiliated with Milosevic's wife, and a longtime associate of state security officials. Mihajlovic said that Vucinic was "obviously inebriated."

 

 

© 2001 The Washington Post Company