Montenegro fears attack by Serb enemy within

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Zeljko" says he used to be a criminal; now he is a policeman. An enforcer for a vicious Belgrade protection racket, he almost killed one of his victims and was told to expect a five-year sentence.

"Zeljko" says he used to be a criminal; now he is a policeman. An enforcer for a vicious Belgrade protection racket, he almost killed one of his victims and was told to expect a five-year sentence.

But he is not in jail. Instead, the Belgrade authorities offered him an alternative, sending him to join the Yugoslav Army's 7th Battalion Military Police in Montenegro.

The 7th Battalion is the unit most feared by the Montenegrin government, which maintains it is a paramilitary force that will be used by Yugoslavia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, if he decides to seize power in the republic. It has been steadily taking on reservists from among Milosevic loyalists in the Montenegrin population. And, according to Zeljko, it is also being filled with personnel from Serbia, many with his sort of paramilitary experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, some from the Belgrade underworld.

Taking recruits from criminal gangs in Serbia was a method of recruiting that led to some of the worst atrocities of the earlier conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. That it is taking place in Montenegro is an ominous sign of what Belgrade intends.

"I was blackmailed into joining. It was my only way to avoid jail. If I don't do this job well, I could get three to five years," Zeljko said. Asked what his orders were, he replied: "Just offensive action. We are training how to take vital objectives in as short a time as possible."

The Yugoslav elections on Sunday are expected to confirm President Milosevic in power. Montenegro, Serbia's much smaller partner in the Yugoslav federation, is boycotting the poll, saying it will not be conducted fairly.

Under its reformist pro-western leader, Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro has been steadily breaking away from Belgrade. His government fears that the time after the poll will be the most dangerous for the republic. It believes Mr Milosevic will then feel he has the strength to act - and that hecalculates the United States, preoccupied with its own presidential race, will not intervene.

The Montenegrin Foreign Minister, Branko Lukova, said the West had to be prepared to make a Kosovo-style intervention. "If we are the victims of violence, we would be expecting the international community to use all possible means to assist Montenegro, including economic assistance, military assistance, no-fly zones, whatever," he said.

The European Union's call to the people of Serbia to vote against President Milosevic will probably not worry the Yugoslav leader - in fact the declaration could not have been better designed to fit with Belgrade's propaganda. Mr Milosevic's government has all along sought to portray him as the defender of Yugoslav interests against foreign conspirators seeking to undermine the country with the help of"enemies within" - the opposition, the student resistance, disloyal journalists or miscellaneous spies.

That is why the Montenegrin authorities are so sensitive to charges that Western governments have been helping them to train special police units, which would be used in a conflict with Belgrade. Such stories, whether true or not, play right into the hands of Mr Milosevic, who likes to portray the Montenegrin government as a tool of the Nato "aggressor" states.

The Montenegrins cannot match the Yugoslav army's heavy weapons or air support. But there are thousands of troops or heavily armed police on both sides. A conflict would be high intensity, probably closer to full-scale war than anything unleashed by President Milosevic in the break-up of the old Yugoslavia.

"The orders to the police will be very clear," the Deputy Prime Minister, Dragisa Burzan, said. "To defend the institutions, to defend the country, to defend the democracy we have built - so the police will have no orders to surrender. [Mr Milosevic] understands it quite clearly - that he cannot repeat here what he did in Bosnia and Croatia."