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Alleged Gold Sale by Milosevic Probed

Yugoslavia: Ex-leader purportedly kept proceeds from illegal transaction. Belgrade's inquiry paves the way for his arrest.

March 01, 2001|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The Belgrade prosecutor's office announced Wednesday that it has asked police to investigate allegations that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic illegally sold gold abroad and kept the proceeds in the bank accounts of foreign-based companies.

The move marked the first time that authorities here have taken a formal legal step toward arresting the former strongman, who has been indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal and faces domestic allegations ranging from corruption to ordering political assassinations.

The move by Serbian prosecutors was triggered by reports alleging that Milosevic illegally sent 380 pounds of gold to Switzerland last fall. The prosecutor's office issued a statement saying it had asked police to "provide more information and . . . check out the press reports" about the gold.

Wednesday's development comes as investigators appear to be closing in on the top levels of the former regime. On Friday, former secret-police chief Rade Markovic was arrested on suspicion of ordering an assassination attempt in which four aides to a former opposition leader were killed.

Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said Wednesday in London that Markovic's arrest "will open the doors to deal with . . . other areas."

"What we are looking at . . . is who gave the orders," Svilanovic said.

The Beta news agency, quoting an anonymous source, reported Wednesday that authorities have set March 10 as the deadline for Milosevic's arrest. The United States has threatened to cut off financial aid to Yugoslavia, whose dominant republic is Serbia, if the Balkan nation fails to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal by March 31. Serbian officials have said they would prefer to prosecute Milosevic on domestic charges rather than send him to The Hague, where the U.N. tribunal is based.

Widespread speculation about the impending arrest prompted a warning Wednesday by Zivorad Igic, a top official of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, that seizing the former president could trigger violence.

Igic said he had told Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a leading advocate of tougher action against Milosevic, that such steps could pose "a threat of civil conflict."

"A man who is accused by somebody, but knows that he is right, is not alone," Igic told reporters. "He has a family, he has friends and party comrades, and he also has part of the people on his side, who think that a verdict cannot be delivered before the facts are proven."

About 150 Milosevic supporters demonstrated in front of Serbian government headquarters Wednesday in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, chanting: "Slobo, we won't give you up. Serbia is with you."

But a nationwide poll by the respected Argument agency that was published Wednesday showed a massive shift in public sentiment against Milosevic. Asked whether Milosevic should be put on trial for war crimes, without any specification where the trial should take place, 60% of respondents answered yes and 17% said no.

When asked whether Milosevic should surrender to the war crimes tribunal or perhaps simply leave the country, 56% said he should give himself up, 31% said he should not and 13% said he should go into exile.

Meanwhile, in Stockholm, U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte called on the European Union to condition its economic aid to Yugoslavia on the government's handing over war crimes suspects. She said Sweden's foreign and justice ministers were receptive to her arguments. Sweden holds the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union.

"We have totally agreed that cooperation with the [tribunal] must start," she said. "It must now be established how long the government of Yugoslavia can take before beginning to cooperate."

Del Ponte said she had been assured that the issue of linking aid to cooperation with the tribunal will be discussed by EU foreign ministers.

"I have heard too often that public opinion in Yugoslavia is not ready to accept international justice, or that the persons indicted by the tribunal would become heroes if delivered to The Hague," she said. "I strongly reject these statements."

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