Serbs purge armed forces of Milosevic loyalists

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The Independent Online

Serbia and Montenegro's top military committee, the Supreme Defence Council, got rid of 16 generals in a purge of Milosevic loyalists yesterday.

Several hundred lower-ranking officers were also axed, according to well-informed sources.

The elimination of the old guard, in which almost a third of 51 active generals or admirals lost their jobs, was aimed at cementing the pro-Western politics of the regime that replaced Slobodan Milosevic three years ago.

By the end of the Supreme Defence Council's session in the Adriatic resort of Meljine in Montenegro, the army had lost the remnants of its conservative and Milosevic-loyalist core, which sympathised and co-operated with the Bosnian Serb army during and after the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.

Some of those who were removedwere often described as sympathisers of Russia, for example the head of military intelligence, General Radoslav Skoric.

Senior officials of Serbia and Montenegro have said repeatedly recently that the reform of the army, including the axing of the old guard, was necessary. The energetic Defence Minister, Boris Tadic, is leading the reform, with the aim of bringing the country closer to Nato through the Partnership for Peace programme, which would be impossible without shedding the dark legacy of the army's past.

One of the sacked generals included the Deputy Chief of Staff, General Vladimir Lazarevic, who was the commander of the Pristina Army Corps in Kosovo province during the 11 weeks of the Nato bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. Some army units are believed to have been involved in the atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Analysts say that the purge of officers loyal to Mr Milosevic, as well as of those known to have sympathies with the Bosnian Serb army, will remove the last obstacle to the arrest of Ratko Mladic, former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, who is wanted by the international war crimes tribunal over atrocities in the 1992-95 war. Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 7,000 Muslim men after they overran the eastern town of Srebrenica in 1995. The slaughter has been described as the worst war crime committed in Europe since the Second World War.

"If he [Mladic] is found in Serbia, he'll be extradited to the Hague," the Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran Zivkovic, said in a recent interview. "We hope to get the problem of Mladic off our agenda by the end of the year."

In an effort to bring the country closer to the international community, Mr Zivkovic last week offered some 1,000 soldiers from Serbia and Montenegro for peace-keeping missions in Liberia or Iraq.

"We have a clear political aim," Mr Zivkovic said at a press conference yesterday. Participation in the international peace mission would mean that an army that was once accused of committing war crimes had been completely reformed, Mr Zivkovic said.

Despite Mr Milosevic's fall from power in 2000, no significant army reforms were possible while his successor, Vojislav Kostunica, stayed in power. Instead of ditching the old guard and reforming the army after taking Mr Milosevic's post, Mr Kostunica maintained the status quo. In return, the military leadership lent Mr Kostunica unqualified backing in his clashes with political rivals, among them the late reform-oriented Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic.

Mr Kostunica stepped down in March, after the new loose union of Serbia and Montenegro was created. One of Mr Kostunica's aides, General Aco Tomic, head of the counter-intelligence service, was retired in late March, shortly after Mr Kostunica left his post. Only days later, General Tomic was arrested over alleged connections with people involved in the 12 March assassination of Mr Djindjic.