Serb army 'shielding Mladic from war crimes court'

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The Independent Online

The Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic is being shielded by the army of Serbia and Montenegro from war crimes charges in The Hague, a former Serbian officer claimed yesterday.

The Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic is being shielded by the army of Serbia and Montenegro from war crimes charges in The Hague, a former Serbian officer claimed yesterday.

Miroslav D Petrovic, 25, a sergeant who deserted, said Mladic spent several months last year in Belgrade under military protection. The army even held a meeting on improving his security last June.

"I attended a meeting at Topcider barracks [last June] where I met many members of the Bosnian Serb army, whose task was to secure the routes for the general if he travelled north of Serbia or to Bosnia," Mr Petrovic told the independent daily Danas.

Mladic disappeared years ago and is widely believed to be moving between the Serb entity of Bosnia and Serbia proper. He faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity during the war in Bosnia, including the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.

Along with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader during the conflict, Mladic is the UN court's most-wanted suspect. Serbia is under intense pressure to hand him over before starting any talks on joining the EU. But it is widely believed that the military, whose officers have generally remained loyal to the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, has prevented his capture. The army has apparently kept up its ties with its war-time allies among Bosnian Serbs.

Topcider barracks is where the army's elite guards are based. Last October, two conscripts died near there in an incident described by the army as a "murder and suicide".

But Mr Petrovic said: "General Mladic was in Topcider last October. The unfortunate fellows saw him and were executed instantly." An independent commission established the presence of a third unidentified person at the scene.

Mr Petrovic said Mladic lives inside a triple ring of protection. He allegedly belonged to the third, least important, outside ring and his task was to provide a safe route if the general went to southern Serbia. He defected last November after refusing to join an alleged army ring of illegal sale of arms to Kosovo Albanians. Deserting from the army is rare in Serbia, but Mr Petrovic claims to have been tortured and beaten because of his refusal to join the corrupt scheme.

On 24 November he crossed the border into Kosovo and surrendered to US members of K-For. The soldiers took him to hospital then moved him out of Kosovo to a US military base in a country "neighbouring Serbia".

Mr Petrovic said he is now under the protection of the US Army. "I'm a deserter because I saw and learnt things I shouldn't have," Mr Petrovic said. "I fear for my life [because] I know many things ... about Topcider, about Mladic".

Yesterday's claim was published after Serbia's Foreign Minister, Vuk Draskovic, accused the conservative and strongly nationalistic military of hiding the general.

The Defence Minister, Prvoslav Davinic, said that the relevant services would check the report in Danas.

The Topcider barracks are shrouded in mystery; it is widely believed that Mr Milosevic hid there during Nato air raids in 1999.

The barracks were built in the 1960s over an entrance leading into an underground concrete city, inside a rocky hill, on the orders of Tito, Yugoslavia's former Communist leader. The complex, which has 9ft- thick reinforced concrete walls, was designed as an alternative command centre in case of war.

Until recently, its existence was known only to senior commanders and politicians. The secret was revealed during the October investigation into the deaths of the two conscripts.

The six-level underground complex, with its own food and electricity supplies, could be a perfect cover for Mladic.

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