French `hitmen plotting to assassinate Milosevic'

FIVE MEMBERS of a supposed hit-squad allegedly paid and organised by the French security services to assassinate President Slobodan Milosevic have been arrested, the Yugoslav government claimed yesterday.

The group, nicknamed "Pauk" (Spider), was allegedly organised and backed by the French secret service. Goran Matic, the Yugoslav Information Secretary, told a news conference that the arrests were made "in the last seven to 10 days" by the Yugoslav secret service and police.

According to Mr Matic, the five-member group had envisaged four scenarios for an assassination attempt against Milosevic. These included a sniper attack, placing an explosive device "in a shaft", planting an explosive device in a parked vehicle along the route that the Yugoslav president would take, and an attack by a group of 10 men, who would break into the residence of Milosevic and try to kill him.

Mr Matic identified the alleged leader of the group as Jugoslav Petrusic, who he said had dual Yugoslav and French citizenship. "Jugoslav Petrusic has been a member of the French intelligence service for some 10 years. He spent some time in Bosnia and Herzegovina and lately he was present in Yugoslavia," Mr Matic said.Mr Matic said Mr Petrusic claimed during interrogations that he had killed around 50 people on behalf of French intelligence. He also accused Mr Petrusic of involvement in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Muslim men during the Bosnian war.

Mr Matic said the group planned an assassination attempt against Milosevic "after the unsuccessful one during the war", a reference to NATO's April attack on the empty residence of the Yugoslav president during the bombing campaign in Kosovo since when Serbians have not known where Milosevic resides.

Matic accused the French secret service of "barbarism" in connection with the latest threat to the Yugoslav president's life, saying: "France was caught red-handed." The French foreign ministry had no immediate comment.

Mr Matic said that all five members of the group were recruited by the French in 1996, following the signing of the Dayton Peace accords on Bosnia- Herzegovina. They are Serbs from Bosnia, some of them officers of the defunct JNA, the army of former Yugoslavia. Their actions aimed to destabilise the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, he added.

Observers last night were not ruling out a propaganda move by the authorities. The hastily-convened press conference bears a close resemblance to another one last January. Three deputy prime ministers of Serbia - including ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj - presented journalists with what they called "a top secret CIA document" on ways to oust Mr. Milosevic.

The document turned out to be a proposal from the US Institute of Peace, a Washington think-tank, during official Congressional testimony in December 1998. It was posted on the institute's web-site.