Serbs crack down on paramilitaries: Milosevic strategy against ultra-right aims to secure majority for Socialists in forthcoming elections

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The Independent Online
ARMED Serbian police set up road-blocks in Belgrade at dawn yesterday and searched cars for weapons in a lightning clampdown on the once-pampered groups of nationalist paramilitaries.

State television announced the campaign overnight, devoting a news programme to the arrest of 14 extremists charged with committing war crimes, rape, the illegal possession of firearms and of being 'a general menace to society'.

The public prosecutor said he was pressing charges against a member of parliament from Vojislav Seselj's ultra-nationalist Radical Party for illegal possession of arms.

Only a year ago the Radical Party and its paramilitary supporters were toasted by the state media as Serbian patriots and heroes. Grisly and well-reported atrocities committed against civilians during the fighting in eastern Croatia and eastern Bosnia were passed over as a necessary part of the work of 'liberating' Bosnia and Croatia.

But after Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, and the Radical Party fell out last month, the patriots and heroes were transformed by the media into a national disagrace. Most of the 14 men arrested are regional leaders of the Radical Party.

The drive against Mr Seselj and his armed cronies is part of Mr Milosevic's strategy to win an absolute majority in parliament for his Socialist Party in the 19 December elections. The campaign began with a series of articles in a weekly magazine, Duga, by Mr Milosevic's wife, Mirjana, in which she launched a blistering tirade against Mr Seselj, calling him a fascist who gave her the creeps.

With the arrest of Mr Seselj's supporters, Mr Milosevic aims to discredit the Radical Party before the poll and build up a new power base around more middle-of-the-road supporters. He also hopes to create more political room for himself before the peace negotiations with Croatia and Bosnia, which must be undertaken if Serbia is to get international sanctions against it lifted.

Mr Seselj could end up sharing a cell with his unsavoury lieutenants if the campaign carries on. Only a minority of Serbs will be sorry about that. While the Radicals enjoyed the President's favour, the gun-toting Mr Seselj and his gangs of armed thugs terrorised the villages of Serbia's northern Vojvodina region, blowing up the homes of ethnic Croats and Hungarians. Serbs who protested against this were beaten up. Revelling in his image of an out-and-out racist, he boasted he would 'cut Croat throats with rusty spoons'.

Some of his apologists say he was unhinged by a spell in prison in Bosnia in the 1970s when he was reportedly raped 17 times by Muslim policemen on the orders of Bosnia's then Communist leader.

The crushing of Mr Seselj is a purely political move, and does not mean Mr Milosevic regrets the war crimes committed by Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. Zeljko Raznjatovic - the baby-faced killer of eastern Croatia whose nom-de-guerre is 'Arkan' - is at large and anything but out of favour.

Now leading the Serbian Unity party, he launched a lavish congress at Belgrade's civic centre this week which was attended by fawning government officials. Arkan's paramilitary groups were every bit as cruel as Mr Seselj's 'Chetniks'. But for the moment Arkan has an important job to do for Serbia's President: to lure the nationalist vote away from the Radicals.

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