Serbian hard man promises blood: Serb militant swears 'freedom or death'

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The Independent Online
VOJISLAV SESELJ fingered the pistol in the holster at his side and watched the river which he swears can never be a border dividing the Serbian people. It was Saturday and the hard man of Serbian nationalist politics was about to cross the Drina into Bosnia for some of the most important rallies of his career. He paused to look at the mountains of Bosnia like a conqueror surveying land that would soon be his.

If this weekend's blitzkrieg into Bosnia by Mr Seselj and his entourage of heavily armed nationalist thugs is anything to go by, it soon may be. Mr Seselj is pumping political iron in preparation for an eventual showdown with his mentor, the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, and he is using Bosnian Serbs to do it.

All day Saturday and yesterday, the big man rolled through Serb-held Bosnia, holding rallies, embracing soldiers and attending Orthodox services to remember Serbs killed in the conquest of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the struggle for a Greater Serbia. This territory, where every day small processions of women in black wind their way along mountain roads to overflowing cemeteries, is fertile ground for Mr Seselj's fiery message of no retreat, no surrender and no compromise. 'The Drina can never be a border' is his new battle cry and he shouted it at almost every stop.

His convoy of new Mercedes and BMWs, some flying black flags with the skull and crossbones alongside the words 'With God's help, freedom or death', careered past soldiers at checkpoints who enthusiastically waved the three-fingered nationalist salute as they sped by.

At Sokolac, near Pale, the 'capital' of the self-styled Bosnian Serb Republic, Mr Seselj was met by thousands of people and an honour guard of 200 veterans of attacks on Muslim towns such as Srebrenica. Toothless old men who fought Germans in these same hills 50 years ago delighted in his message. Middle-aged women crossed themselves as if in the presence of a prelate. This is Mr Seselj's heartland and you could see his pleasure as he strode through the crowds.

In the three weeks since Mr Milosevic made a sudden about-turn over Bosnia and urged the Serbs there to sign the Vance-Owen peace plan, Mr Seselj has taken advantage of Bosnian Serb feelings of abandonment by Belgrade. 'Seselj is fact not fiction,' said a senior Western diplomat in Belgrade. 'He sees that the Bosnian card will allow him to free himself from his puppet-master.'

At a press conference yesterday in Pale, Mr Seselj made an indirect attack on Mr Milosevic, saying that 'some political parties, and the regime in Belgrade, have shown a certain amount of fear in the wake of Western threats of bombing.'

Mr Seselj arrived fresh from flexing his muscles before Mr Milosevic on Friday, when he led a walk-out by 139 deputies from a pan-Serbian parliament called to pressure the Bosnian Serbs to agree to the Vance-Owen peace plan. It was no accident that his Bosnian tour coincided with a referendum on Vance-Owen. The result, to be announced on Wednesday, is expected to be a resounding 'no'.

Mr Seselj told a crowd, including many soldiers and refugees, in Sokolac, that he was born in Bosnia and that Sarajevo was his 'fatherland'. He warned that if the West attacked, 'I will lead the Serbian people and we will destroy Sarajevo in a couple of days.' All UN positions would come under attacks by 'the best and the bravest' soldiers Serbia could muster. Muslims and Croats would be killed. 'We will annhilate all the people and take all of Bosnia,' he said.

The message enthralled the battle- hardened and the blood-drunk. But it did not end there. Yesterday referendum officials in Grbavica, a Serb-held neighbourhood of Sarajevo, heard that Mr Seselj might visit.

'It would be an real honour if he came. He is a great Serb', said Nenad Marjianovic. But Mr Seselj never arrived: it was deemed too dangerous.

(Photograph omitted)