Serbian party accuses Yugoslav president of 'privatising' army as deputy PM freed

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The Independent Online

The largest party in Serbia's ruling coalition said yesterday that it would propose legislation to place the country's traditionally independent military under greater civilian control.

The announcement, released in a statement by the Democratic Party of Serbia, came a day after the Yugoslav military released a top government official whom it suspects of spying for America.

Military intelligence agents arrested the Deputy Prime Minister, Momcilo Perisic, on Thursday, accusing him of passing secret documents to a US diplomat. The American, identified as John David Neighbor, was detained along with Mr Perisic and held for 15 hours.

Mr Perisic, an outspoken critic of the military, has denied the espionage allegations. He used to be the army's top commander with the rank of Lieutenant-General and served under the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, until 1998, when Mr Milosevic sacked him for opposing a crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Senior Serbian government officials said the security service had tried to frame Mr Perisic by planting incriminating documents in his briefcase.

The Foreign Minister, Goran Svilanovic, said he had officially apologised to the US ambassador to Belgrade, William Montgomery, and expressed regret over the "arrest and detention of the US diplomat".

The US State Department had protested at the treatment of the diplomat and expressed concern over the impact of the case on Serbian democracy.

The furore over the detentions has highlighted a growing rift between hardline generals, who are backed by the Yugoslav President, Vojislav Kostunica, and reformist leaders in Serbia who have been trying to impose civilian control over the military. Serbia is the larger republic in Yugoslavia, which also includes Montenegro.

The Democratic Party, led by Serbia's Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, suggested yesterday that Mr Kostunica was responsible for the arrests, noting that military intelligence officers answer directly to the office of the Yugoslav president. The party's statement accused Mr Kostunica and his aides of having "privatised" the military, and said: "This is jeopardising the human rights of our citizens."

Thursday's arrests came as Mr Djindjic had been pressing for reforms to make the military accountable to civilian institutions. Mr Kostunica and military hard-liners oppose changing the army's structure.

When the country was formed after the First World War, the military was put under the command of the king and out of parliamentary control. After the kingdom was abolished following the Second World War, Marshal Tito used the army to crush opposition to communist rule. In return, the generals were given a free hand to run their affairs.(AP)