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PR men ahead in war of words

BOSNIA Peter Victor on the rise of Serbian spin doctors
WHEN the public relations war broke out over the former Yugoslavia three years ago the Serbs took a fearful pounding. Muslim and Croat PR men appeared on our TV screens, smart-suited and handsome: they spoke excellent, charmingly accented English. The Bosnian Serb mouthpieces were sorry by comparison: ugly and badly dressed, they spoke the English of Eastern European tractor salesmen.

No more. As the conflict has grown bloodier and more chaotic, they have grown smoother and more skillful. Misa Gavrilovic, Jovan Zametica, Srdja Trifkovic and Marko Gasic strive to put reasonable faces to Serb nationalist ambitions. They appear on television or radio, explaining eloquently why Serb atrocities are more acceptable than those of their Muslim and Croat enemies.

Zametica, 38, the Serb's arch spin doctor, is a former student at Cambridge and lecturer in history at Marlborough. He also published a pamphlet entitled The Yugoslav Conflict for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Since returning to Pale as chief spokesman for the Bosnian Serbs Zametica has gained notoriety as right-hand man to Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian warlord. Zametica's finest hour was warning General Sir Michael Rose: "Don't mess with us. Don't f*** around. If you hit us it means war."

Gasic, whose family hails from Grahovo, a town overrun by Croats during the conflict, is a co-founder with Gavrilovic of the Serbian Information Centre in England. Born in Britain and trained as a historian, he is a stalwart of the centre's campaign to highlight Croat and Muslim atrocities.

Trifkovic is a journalist who has worked for the BBC World Service and Voice of America. Studying in California when war broke out in Bosnia, he now travels widely promoting Serb aims but is based in London.

Gavrilovic, 54, keeps up a constant flow of letters to British newspapers, countering what he describes as biased reporting. Born in Belgrade but a British citizen for the last 30 years, he has mastered the art of broadcasting with a stern reasonableness, the tightly held temper of the wronged parent explaining to a backward child. Last week he abandoned this, openly furious after the air strikes near Sarajevo. But by yesterday he was back to being pleasant, articulate, pointing out reasonably that a major superpower, Nato, and most of the Muslim world was against the Serbs.

"When we first started to come forward there were virtually no Serb spokesmen. We are all independent, but we are all Serbs. And we have to try harder, be a bit smarter than the others [Croat and Muslim spokesmen] because we have a tougher task."

British journalists are increasingly unconvinced by their efforts. In one exchange last week Radio 4's James Naughtie could contain himself no longer. He broadsided Mr Gavrilovic: "You are in no position to accuse anyone of racism."