Anger as EU lifts travel bans on Milosevic allies

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The European Union provoked anger and bemusement in Belgrade yesterday when it included a notorious former secret police chief and an army chief on the list of those now permitted to travel to the EU without visas.

The European Union provoked anger and bemusement in Belgrade yesterday when it included a notorious former secret police chief and an army chief on the list of those now permitted to travel to the EU without visas.

The decision to relax the EU's visa ban imposed on associates of the former president, Slobodan Milosevic, was taken to help to improve relations with Serbia. But the lifting of the entry ban on the head of Serbia's secret police, Radomir Markovic, provoked consternation in Belgrade.

Mr Markovic's secret police are believed to have been involved in a series of politically motivated killings and abductions that still remain unsolved. The cases include the death last year of Slavko Curuvija, a journalist, and the car crash that killed four aides of the opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic.

Mr Markovic is also thought to have been implicated in the abduction of Ivan Stambolic, the president of Serbia who was toppled by Mr Milosevic in 1987.

Others now free to visit the EU include Nebojsa Ravkovic, the army chief of staff, who led the army in Kosovo during Nato's air campaign last year, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees fled in fear of repression. The relaxation of the visa ban also includes Momir Bulatovic, the former federal prime minister.

Zarko Korac, one of the leaders of Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) told The Independent: "The decision of the EU is completely unreasonable and counter-productive. It seems that someone totally incompetent worked on it." He said DOS was not consulted by the EU about the list.

Zoran Djindjic, another DOS leader, said: "It looks like the suggestions on lifting the visa ban were given by someone sympathetic to the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic."

EU officials suggested that the new President of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica, had been consulted and pointed out that no one indicted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague was included. Diplomats see the concession to Mr Markovic as a reward for his refusal to risk a bloodbath in defence of Mr Milosevic's regime in September's uprising.

They believe that Mr Kostunica wanted to make the gesture to help to stabilise the political climate inside Serbia. They added, however, that the decision was not irreversible and that the list could be amended at regular intervals.

In Belgrade there was intense interest in the list, which was published in newspapers. The names of the former Serbian justice minister Dragoljub Jankovic and a journalist, Tatjana Lenard, were also among those removed. Under Mr Jankovic, the Serbian judiciary routinely ran mock trials. Ms Lenard was, until 5 October, editor of the information programme of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), which was renowned for fuelling nationalist, pro-war sentiments. She is a close ally of Mr Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic.

The reaction to yesterday's relaxation illustrates the difficulties facing EU policy-makers as they attempt to improve ties with Mr Kostunica's Serbia.

Almost as soon as Mr Kostunica was installed, Hubert Vedrine, the Foreign Minister of France -which holds the rotating EU presidency and which has long backed the removal of sanctions - visited Belgrade.

Meanwhile, the European Commission pointed out that it was not responsible for drawing up the visa ban list, which is compiled by the member states in the Council of Ministers.

Most sanctions are being dismantled, although there remains an asset freeze on about 600 of Mr Milosevic's closest allies and financial sanctions against some specific institutions. The UN arms embargo also remains in place.

* President Kostunica used a debut appearance at the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday to press Yugoslavia's case for joining the EU, but he said it first needed support to rebuild its shattered economy.

Diplomats in Brussels said the EU had agreed on aid to Serbia worth "about two billion euros" (£1.2bn) through to 2006.

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