Kostunica faces fresh clash over army chief

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The Independent Online

A rift has opened up between Yugoslavia's new President, Vojislav Kostunica, and some of his most powerful backers, including Serbia's king-maker, Zoran Djindjic, even as Slobodan Milosevic's allies in the Serbian government backed down yesterday and agreed to hand over power.

A rift has opened up between Yugoslavia's new President, Vojislav Kostunica, and some of his most powerful backers, including Serbia's king-maker, Zoran Djindjic, even as Slobodan Milosevic's allies in the Serbian government backed down yesterday and agreed to hand over power.

At the heart of the dispute are two generals with blood-spattered pasts: the Chief-of-Staff, Nebojsa Pavkovic, who commanded the federal army, the VJ, in Kosovo, where its soldiers are alleged to have committed atrocities; and Momcilo Perisic, who stands accused of shelling civilians in Croatia.

Powerful voices in the coalition that backed Mr Kostunica for President are demanding that General Pavkovic be sacked as Chief-of-Staff and replaced with General Perisic. Chief among them is Mr Djindjic, whose support was vital in Mr Kostunica's campaign.

But the appointment of a chief-of-staff lies directly in the President's hands, and Mr Kostunica has let it be known he wants to leave the general staff unchanged for the time being. He has even complained publicly that Mr Djindjic is making policy statements without his approval.

General Headquarters reacted furiously when Mr Djindjic suggested Mr Pavkovic might be persuaded to resign last week, issuing vague threats of "negative consequences".

But some at least among Mr Djindjic's faction are refusing to back down. "Kostunica must get rid of Pavkovic within a week," said Zoran Zivkovic, mayor of Nis and a close aide to Mr Djindjic.

Others looking for General Pavkovic's scalp sought to play down the division. "There is no rift between us, only a difference of opinion," said Zoran Korec, a leading member of the alliance behind Mr Kostunica.

The office of General Perisic, the favoured candidate to replace General Pavkovic, was fanning the flames. "I won't say how deep the division in DOS goes, but even the slightest division is enough for General Pavkovic and the other leading generals to be sacked," said Dragan Vuksic, and adviser to General Perisic.

"The majority of officers are against Pavkovic," claimed Mr Vuksic. "If he isn't sacked, they may act to remove him."

Also in the anti-Pavkovic faction's sights is Dragoljub Ojdanic, the federal Defence Minister, who has been indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

General Pavkovic is certainly unpopular. At Mr Kostunica's swearing-in ceremony he was booed by onlookers - it is rare for a soldier to be heckled in Serbia. He has a murky past, as commander of the VJ in Kosovo, where its soldiers have been accused of atrocities. But he has not been publicly indicted by the Hague tribunal.

General Perisic is accused of shelling civilians in Zadar in the Croatian war in 1991, and has been tried in absentia for war crimes by a Croatian court and sentenced to 20 years. But he, too, has not been publicly indicted by the Hague tribunal.

Ask Mr Zivkovic why the chief-of-staff should be changed and you get an answer worrying for Serbia's nascent democracy: "We want Perisic because he's our man," he said. General Pavkovic was close to the Milosevic regime, while General Perisic was highly critical of the former president at the time of the Nato air attacks.

But there is a personal grudge, too. "Pavkovic called up 12 out of 70 Nis city councillors to serve in Kosovo," complains Mr Zivkovic. "Eleven of them were from my party."

The row simmered on yesterday even as Mr Milosevic's allies backed down from threats to seize back power and agreed to new elections in Serbia on 24 December.

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