Serbia's military elite prepared to turn its guns on Milosevic

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Officers and elite units in the Yugoslav army are prepared to launch a revolt against the government, including the use of firepower, if President Slobodan Milosevic tries to order a violent crackdown against the pro- democracy demonstrators who have thronged the streets of Serbia's cities for the past eight weeks.

Sources in the armed forces have told The Independent that roughly half of their permanent members, as well as the vast majority of conscripts, are sympathetic to the demonstrators and would do everything they could to avert bloodshed and political repression.

"If Milosevic orders a crackdown, I would be prepared to shoot him," a major in charge of a tank brigade said. "If he tries to mobilise us, I would turn my tanks on the government."

Another major, a commander in the Yugoslav equivalent of the SAS, told The Independent that any attempt by Mr Milosevic to co-opt the armed forces would blow up in his face. "It will be like Bucharest," he said, referring to the short but bloody end to the Ceausescu regime in Romania in 1989.

"If he tries to use the army, the army will be used against him."

Relations between Mr Milosevic and the armed forces have deteriorated rapidly since the war in Bosnia, and soldiers are now badly paid, badly equipped and poorly respected. Mr Milosevic has instead built up a fearsome special police force that operates, in effect, like a private army. It is this police force that is most likely to be at the forefront of any crackdown.

But the major in the special air services said this action, too, would meet with strong army resistance.

"We would mobilise ourselves against them. First, we would issue a warning and then, if necessary, we would take stronger measures."

Opposition leaders addressing their supporters in Belgrade read out a letter last week expressing the support of a number of army brigades and a commitment that they would never turn against the crowds.

It is not clear whether the letter was genuine, but the sentiments undoubtedly reflected reality.

Mr Milosevic can probably count on the support of the top generals he has himself nominated, along with a hard core of junior officers, but nobody else - particularly not the elite units.

The special-services major said his brigade had sent a letter to the armed forces chief of staff, Momcilo Perisic, asking whether they might be ordered to move against the demonstrators and making clear that they would strongly oppose it.

Gen Perisic, the major said, had responded that the army's job was to protect the constitution and gave a specific commitment that they would not take part in repressive activities. With his letter, the general enclosed a copy of the report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on municipal elections in November urging President Milosevic to acknowledge opposition victories in Serbia's main towns, including Belgrade.

Relations appear to be strained between President Milosevic and Gen Perisic, partly because of budget constraints on the army and partly because a number of key decisions have gone through the Defence Ministry and by- passed the army command.

Military experts do not believe, however, that Mr Milosevic would dare to replace him in the present climate.

"It would be a sign that the loyalty of the whole army was disintegrating," said Dragan Veselinov, leader of an opposition coalition in the northern province of Vojvodina and a political science professor.

Fight to the death, page 10