Milosevic move may portend Serbian coup

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The Independent Online
WHAT COULD PROVE to be a dress rehearsal for a coup d'etat in the rump Yugoslavia took place yesterday, when police loyal to the Serbian hardliner Slobodan Milosevic seized the Belgrade headquarters of the Federal Ministry of the Interior.

The takeover of the two buildings in the centre of Belgrade, which occurred overnight in great secrecy, met with no resistance. It dealt a severe blow to the prestige of Milan Panic, Yugoslavia's reformist Prime Minister, who cut short talks with Croatian and Bosnian leaders in Geneva and rushed back to Belgrade.

Relations between Mr Panic and Mr Milosevic reached rock bottom last week over their opposing conceptions of how to solve the crisis in Serbia and lift international sanctions.

In the rumour-filled Serbian and federal capital last night, there was speculation that the seizure of the ministry buildings was a blueprint for a future coup by Serbian nationalist hardliners who bitterly oppose Mr Panic's peace overtures to Croatia and the West.

The ministerial takeover was spearheaded by Mihaly Kertes, a hardline ally of Mr Milosevic who was recently dismissed by Mr Panic for alleged involvement in a plan to start 'ethnic cleansing' in Serbia. Among the shock troops used by Mr Kertes to seize the ministry was a detachment of special police from Krajina, the Serbian-controlled enclave in Croatia that is ruled by ultra-hardline Milosevic loyalists.

A western diplomat last night cautioned against rumours of an imminent military coup. 'This was a demonstration by Mr Milosevic of who is in control,' he said. 'Mr Milosevic appears to be saying to Mr Panic that you can remove Kertes if you want, but I can put him back.'

The 48,000-strong Serbian police, equipped with light tanks and helicopters, is a far more formidable body than the federal force of 1,OOO officers, leaving no room for doubt about the outcome of a showdown between the two. Serbian police guarded the doors of the ministry buildings and stopped journalists from entering yesterday. Unconfirmed reports said that the police were searching for files and archives, possibly those which shed light on Mr Kertes's career as chief of the federal secret police.

As the federal government met in emergency session last night to deal with this severe challenge to its authority, there was little by way of explanation from either Serbian or federal officials. The statement carried on Serbian Radio and on the Belgrade news agency, Tanjug, blandly stated that the dispute concerned property rights and had no political connotations.

At the end of the session headed by Mr Panic, the federal government accused the Serbs of 'seriously threatening the vital state and security functions of the federal republic of Yugoslavia' and pledged 'urgent measures', which they did not specify, to enable the Interior Ministry to carry on working.

The deliberate humiliation of Mr Panic and the federal government comes just after Dobrica Cosic, President of Yugoslavia, joined the chorus of people who are suggesting that Mr Milosevic must step down. Mr Panic has called for the Serbian leader to quit several times, claiming that the longer Mr Milosevic and his ruling Socialists (formerly Communists) remain in office, the less likely it is that international sanctions against Serbia will ever be lifted.

At a stormy session of parliament last week, Mr Cosic lashed out at 'armed politicians in Serbia' and threatened laws to control the paramilitary groups that have mushroomed under Mr Milosevic.

GENEVA - Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's President, met Mr Cosic yesterday in his first face-to-face contact with any Serbian leader since the war began in Bosnia, Reuter reports.