Vukovar war crimes suspect is arrested after clashes

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The Independent Online

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades in battles with hardline nationalists as they arrested one of Serbia's main war crimes suspects, wanted for his alleged role in the killing of Croats outside the city of Vukovar.

Veselin Sljivancanin was taken to prison early yesterday, after police stormed his apartment following a 10-hour siege and clashes with hundreds of nationalists and members of the wanted man's family. At least 30 protesters and more than 50 policemen were injured, three of them seriously.

At about midnight, the armoured doors of Mr Sljivancanin's apartment were destroyed by explosives. He did not resist arrest and left the building with his hands tied, surrounded by policemen.

The 50-year old, a retired colonel of the Yugoslav Army, was in Belgrade Central Prison yesterday awaiting extradition to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, probably in the next 10 days. He was accused in 1995 of complicity in the massacre of 260 Croats, who were taken from Vukovar hospital in 1991 and executed at the nearby farm of Ovcara.

The two others named on the same indictment, Miroslav Radic and Mile Mrksic, have surrendered to the tribunal. The notorious trio are known as "the Vukovar Three".

The siege of Vukovar by the Yugoslav army, which tried to prevent Croatia's secession from former Yugoslavia in co-ordination with Slobodan Milosevic, is one of the darkest pages of the history of the Serb-Croat war.

The picturesque baroque town on the river Danube was pounded by army artillery for three months. Its people lived in cellars until Vukovar's Croat defenders pulled out finally in November 1991. The episode was dubbed the "Croatian Stalingrad" due to the length and duress of the siege. More than 1,100 people were killed and tens of thousands fled their homes in the aftermath.

The protests in support of Mr Sljivancanin were, oddly, more violent than those which coincided with the arrest of Mr Milosevic in April 2001 after a 26-hour stand-off.

Nationalism remains strong among some Serbs, who view people like Mr Sljivancanin as a hero and called him the "knight of Vukovar". Although the new regime seems ready to question the role of Serbia in the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslav, promises of a speedy economic recovery for the region have proved false and dissatisfaction with the new pro-Western regime is growing.

Mr Sljivancanin's arrest came only two days before a US deadline for Serbia to co-operate with the UN tribunal or risk losing financial aid and political support, and $110m (£65m) are in the balance.

Goran Svilanovic, the Foreign Minister, said the arrest would "significantly improve the country's chances to receive US financial aid and political support in the future."

Mr Sljivancanin spent years in hiding and, according to relatives, travelled to Belgrade on Thursday to celebrate his 50th birthday. Police, who found him in his bed, were reported to have acted on a tip-off from his neighbours.

Mr Sljivancanin was promoted twice while serving under Mr Milosevic and retired only after the former leader fell from power. He had repeatedly said that he would not surrender to the UN tribunal. He was rumoured to wear explosives around his body which he threatened to detonate in case of arrest.

"I recognise only the authority of my people" was one of his favourite statements, which must have been music to the ultranationalists' ears.