Assault on the Serbs: The laughing butcher of Bosnia sent south 'to de fend' Kosovo

Ethnic Cleansing
Click to follow
The Independent Online
BELGRADE'S announcement that the paramilitary leader known as Arkan has been sent to Kosovo will make many Kosovars sick to the stomach with fear.

Borislav Pelevic, vice president of Arkan's Serbian Unity party, yesterday told Serbian television that a large group of volunteers from Jagodina, in central Serbia, and Belgrade would be heading south to "defend Kosovo". A group, possibly several thousand, would be sent soon, he said.

The offer is unlikely to be just a scare tactic. Zeljko Raznjatovic's warriors, known as "Tigers", spearheaded a campaign of terror against civilians in Serbia's two earlier wars in Croatia and in Bosnia. Arkan's gory persona as a killer was further reinforced yesterday by George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, when he used the move as further justification of the Nato campaign.

In April 1992 a Time magazine photographer captured the Tigers in action in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina, after they had stormed in to crush the town's Muslims. A memorable picture showed one of these shaven-headed hulks, a cigarette in one hand, planting a jackboot on top of the body of a murdered Muslim.

Yugoslav war crime investigators have dossiers on Arkan from the 1992- 95 Bosnian conflict describing him as acting "like a possessed man", and claiming he often giggled as he massacred civilians. One of the central allegations against the Tigers is that, using machine-guns and hand guns, they slaughtered 2,000 Muslims in a sports centre.

In the earlier war with Croatia, Arkan displayed his talent for tormenting potential victims. When his forces seemed poised to capture the eastern Croatian city of Osijek in 1991 he made a broadcast to the city on radio, announcing in his sinister, high-pitched voice that he would soon be their lord mayor. His militia also took part in the destruction of the neighbouring Croatian town of Vukovar, in November 1991.

In spite of this litany of horrors, Arkan has not been publicly indicted by the United Nations Yugoslav War Tribunal in the Hague. His name may, however, be in the so-called "sealed indictment", kept secret to lull the target into a false sense of security.

In Belgrade, the podgy-faced 49-year-old is a working-class hero. His wedding in 1995 to a svelte Serbian folk singer, Svetlana Velickovic, known as Ceca, drew enormous crowds. Bishops and politicians flocked to be seen at the war hero's side. Middle-class intellectuals may fear or scorn him but in a macho society such as Serbia's, Arkan's reputation as conqueror in the bedroom and on the battlefield appeals enormously to the popular psyche.

Serbs like his filial devotion to the Serbian Orthodox Church. He is often seen in the company of nationalist bishops, such as the powerful Bishop Amfilohije of Montenegro. He is a great showman, and has tended his own cult among football-mad Serbs by taking over the Belgrade football team, Obilic, and running the fan club of the Belgrade team Red Star.

Arkan's utterances on the subject of the fatherland are often phrased in a childish way. But he is no baby when it comes to money and has built up a fortune by running various smuggling and black-market rackets. The authorities tolerate, possibly encourage, these scams, knowing they can call on his services for all the "dirty" military enterprises that they do not want to be directly associated with. During the Bosnian peace talks, President Slobodan Milosevic voiced great surprise when the subject of Arkan was brought up by the Americans, innocently claiming he had never even heard of him.

Recently Arkan is said to have extended his business operations to Serbia's southern neighbour, Macedonia.

He has been a trained killer virtually since his youth. When still in his twenties, the Yugoslav security services used him to get rid of annoying exiled dissidents, often emigre Croats, working for Croatian independence. He is wanted in six European countries for bank robberies and other criminal activities. Spectacularly, he shot his way out of a Swedish court. In 1985 Interpol requested his extradition from Belgrade. Of course, it was refused.

Recruited from the gyms and football fields of Serbia, the Tigers are a cut above most other Serb paramilitary groups. Many of them, for all their fearsome reputation, are clubs for drunks, misfits and fanatics obsessed with wearing old uniforms and long beards.

In contrast, although Arkan plays to the gallery by dressing up in Serbian folk costume, there is nothing old-fashioned about the Tigers, who have crew cuts and wear modern combat uniforms.