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Masked Police Storm Milosevic's Belgrade Mansion

Yugoslavia: A special unit clears federal guards and bursts through gates as ex-president's supporters jeer. But as the standoff continued, his status remained uncertain.

March 31, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Special police wearing black masks and firing automatic weapons stormed deposed Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's mansion early today, hours after the government claimed that he was already under arrest.

The operation came at 1:30 a.m., shortly after a defiant Milosevic appeared on television, smiling and waving to a small crowd of supporters at the gates of his compound.

Police arrived in three vehicles, fired weapons and threw stun grenades to clear federal troops guarding the mansion. They were through the front gates within seconds. Shots were apparently fired from the compound, and a police officer reportedly was wounded.

An hour later, a camouflaged armored vehicle drove slowly up Milosevic's front driveway and stopped at the gate.

About 100 Milosevic supporters jeered at police, calling them murderers and chanting "Slobo, you Serb, Serbia is with you!" But the small crowd that had vowed to stop an arrest of Milosevic, who has been accused of corruption and war crimes, put up little resistance as dozens of police surrounded the compound.

At 6:15 a.m., Serbian forces cleared all civilians outside the compound.

As the standoff between police and Milosevic's bodyguards continued this morning, it was unclear whether he had been formally served an arrest warrant.

Politika, a government-run newspaper, claimed in today's editions that army commander Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic had blocked the arrest attempt Friday night.

The police assault followed a bizarre night of claims and counter-claims about whether Milosevic was under arrest or at home sipping coffee. It came as Yugoslavia faced a deadline of midnight tonight, set by the U.S. Congress, to show cooperation with a United Nations war crimes tribunal or risk losing tens of millions of dollars in American aid.

U.S. officials have indicated that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will report Monday whether Yugoslavia is cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Milosevic dominated Yugoslavia for more than a decade as the former Communist federation broke apart and suffered repeated wars.

He and four top aides were indicted in May 1999 by the tribunal on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for Yugoslav troops' harsh treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. He has also been accused of corruption and involvement in political assassinations during his rule.

Eight of Milosevic's cronies, including Rade Markovic, the former chief of the secret police, are behind bars in the central prison of Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, pending investigation.

Although some Serbian government officials have suggested for weeks that Milosevic was under house arrest, behind walls guarded by federal troops who answer to President Vojislav Kostunica, Milosevic had freely come and gone to attend meetings of his Socialist Party. And house arrest is rare in the legal system of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac insisted Friday night that Milosevic was under arrest and said the former president would appear before a judge on unspecified charges this morning.

But Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, one of the main leaders of the campaign to remove Milosevic from power in October, told B-92 Radio that he had no idea whether police had detained Milosevic.

"I really don't know about that," Djindjic said early this morning. "I'm watching [the film] 'Gladiator' with my son Luka."

Throughout the night, the parliamentary leader of Milosevic's Socialist Party, Branislav Ivkovic, repeatedly told reporters that Milosevic was still in his mansion in the leafy Dedinje district of Belgrade.

Calling the report of Milosevic's arrest "an absolute lie," Ivkovic blamed the "so-called independent media," which he said was controlled by the ruling coalition.

"And it's clear why they do it," Ivkovic told B-92 Radio by phone from Milosevic's mansion. "It's because they want to fulfill their vicious intentions, and in this they will not succeed because the people are standing by Slobodan and he is still the host in his house."

The twisted tale concerning Milosevic began just after 7 p.m. Friday as the Serbian parliament was debating this year's budget, which would be impossible to implement without hundreds of millions of dollars in Western aid.

Ivkovic went to the podium and claimed that police had begun an operation to arrest Milosevic. He told parliament that seven unmarked jeeps, carrying men in military-style jackets and armed with submachine guns, had arrived at Milosevic's mansion with three ambulances.

About 150 Milosevic supporters--mostly middle-age and elderly people--maintained a vigil outside the rear gates, as they have for weeks, vowing to prevent any arrest.

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