Serbian warrior wins hearts and mindless: Women swoon and men gush as the warlord Arkan goes on the campaign trail, writes Marcus Tanner in Paracin

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THE CROWD are rhythmically chanting 'Arkan, Arkan' long before their twinkly-eyed and chubby- cheeked hero has set foot on stage. To warm up the audience in a freezing sports stadium in southern Serbia, a trio of pop singers, Oliver, Ceca and a gypsy called Dzej, belt out a recent hit, 'Sexy Rhythm'.

'I am deeply proud to declare I am a member of Arkan's Serbian Unity Party,' gushes Ceca, a leggy brunette in a black leotard. 'And now, I present to you a fighter in war and a politician in peace,' adds a blonde compere. 'Arkan.' The rhythmic chanting starts again and the teenage girls who make up half the audience scream deliriously.

Better known as a paramilitary warlord, Arkan, real name Zeljko Raznjatovic, has hung up his fatigues and donned the sober suit of a politician. Heading his Serbian Unity party, he is running an American-style campaign in Serbia's 19 December elections, complete with cheerleaders and pop singers.

'The world wants us to go down on our knees but we are holy Serbs and we trust in God,' he booms. 'One day the world will beg Serbia's forgiveness for what they did to us. Democracy was created in Serbia centuries before America was even discovered.'

'Tako Je]' (That's right), the audience roar back.

The politician act is quite a change for a fighter whose paramilitary units, known as the Tigers, terrorised villages around Vukovar in the war in Croatia 1991, and who went on to make a bloody assault on the north-eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina last year. The former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger named Arkan among people the Bush administration believed should be tried for war crimes. Mr Raznjatovic laughs: 'I am not afraid of any war crimes tribunal,

I fear only God and my wife.'

He says he wants a cabinet post. Realistically, he may scoop about 20 seats in the 250-seat chamber. He enjoys the support of the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, who is using him to soak up ultra-nationalist votes which might otherwise go to Mr Milosevic's former ally turned enemy, Vovislav Seselj.

Arkan is rich. Newspapers attribute this to a stranglehold on oil and cigarette smuggling between sanctions-hit Serbia and Serb-held Bosnia. The son of a Yugoslav army officer, Mr Raznjatovic was an assassin in the Yugoslav secret service. He is wanted for bank robberies in several countries including Sweden, where he reportedly shot his way out of a court room.

His repertoire consists of Serbian nationalist gobbledegook. 'The Albanians want to take Serbian Kosovo into Albania but I am here and I say never,' he shouts. 'Kosovo is holy Serbian territory and will stay Serbian. There are our churches and monasteries and we will defend every millimetre]' He climaxes, Nuremberg-style, shrieking: 'This is our Serbian dream - one nation, one language, one church, one parliament, one president, one dream, the United States of Serbia]'

At the end, the older people gushed with enthusiasm. 'Above all he is a great warrior,' said Liljana Stankovic. 'He was always at the front line whenever he was needed. I don't believe the accusations made against him for war crimes and in any case I am interested in the future not the past.'

The youngsters are split between those who came for Arkan and those who just wanted to hear Ceca and Dzej. 'Unlike the other politicians he was at the front line fighting for Serbia,' said Vladimir, 16.

A dissenting voice came from 18- year-old Predrag. 'God forbid he should ever be our prime minister - he has degraded our image in the world,' he said. 'In Belgrade you can pay to get someone killed for 100 Deutschmarks ( pounds 40) a day, thanks to people like Arkan.'

But his was a lone voice. As the crowd left, a fight broke out between a group of youths. The struggle was over shopping bags embellished with Arkan's cheesy grin.

(Photograph omitted)