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Belgrade Regime Tied to Alleged War Crimes

Ultranationalists claim they were armed and deployed by top police and government figures

EVEN as the European Community offers to ease economic sanctions, new allegations are providing the strongest evidence yet of Belgrade's direct role in creating the Serbian paramilitaries suspected of war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

Most damaging have been statements by several paramilitary leaders, including Vojislav Seselj, the chief of the Serbian Radical Party and its armed wing, the Serbian Chetnik Movement, a militia that has been implicated in massacres of non-Serb civilians.

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``I have already expressed my readiness to go to The Hague and testify on war crimes,'' Mr. Seselj told a group of reporters, referring to the recently constituted United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in the Netherlands. ``But, I don't know how anyone can go to The Hague if [Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic does not go.''

Seselj says his fighters were armed and supervised by Mr. Milosevic's police. He denies his group's involvement in atrocities.

Details of Belgrade's purported support for Seselj's fighters and other bands of ruthless Serbian ultranationalists have also appeared over the last two weeks in prominent Belgrade newspapers and magazines.

Ivica Dacic, chief spokesman for Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), denies the allegations, saying the regime ``did not organize or become involved in paramilitary operations that resulted in war crimes.''

The denials are widely dismissed: Under Milosevic's authoritarian system, it would be impossible for tens of thousands of men to acquire modern arms and uniforms and deploy across Serbia's borders without official connivance.

Belgrade's involvement in the Serbian conquest of 70 percent of Bosnia for inclusion in a ``Greater Serbia'' was cited as the main basis for the imposition of the UN economic sanctions in May 1992.

The 12-nation EC this week proposed a gradual suspension of the measures if Milosevic prevails on his Bosnian Serb proxies to concede more territory to the Muslim-led Bosnian government than they had previously been prepared to relinquish.

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Belgrade's alleged sponsorship of ultranationalist Serbian paramilitary groups has been accepted as fact among the public here and the international community since warfare erupted with the breakup of former Yugoslavia in 1991.

The latest allegations are significant because, for the first time, the public has learned the names of senior ruling party and police officials who allegedly directed Serbian paramilitary operations in Croatia and Bosnia.

Foremost among those cited is Radmilo Bogdanovic, Milosevic's reputed second-in-command. He was officially dropped as Serbian interior minister in 1991, but is still regarded as the eminence grise behind the ubiquitous internal security services.

Also alleged to have played key roles are Mihalj Kertes, a former Yugoslav deputy interior minister and now a Serbian minister without portfolio; Radovan Stojcic, a deputy Serbian interior minister; and Franko Simatovic, a senior Serbian secret police commander.

Seselj, in an interview with the Belgrade daily, Borba, said his fighters were commanded by Mr. Kertes in the Eastern Slavonija region of Croatia, and by Mr. Stojcic in Bosnia.

Among other operations in which his Chetniks participated, was an offensive earlier this year against the besieged Muslim-dominated eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, Seselj said. ``We ... received weapons from the Army, but a lot more from the [Serbian] police.''

Kertes and Mr. Simatovic were also identified as key figures in paramilitary operations by Dragoslav Bokan, the leader of a notorious ultranationalist band implicated in gruesome atrocities in western Croatia and in Bosnia.

In an interview with Vreme magazine, he admitted leading ``my men in [ethnic] cleansing operations.

``We were never allowed to appear on state television in contrast to Dragan and Arkan, who had and still have access to big money,'' Mr. Bokan says.

Captain Dragan is a former Australian Army soldier who leads one of the most highly respected paramilitary outfits in the Krajina, the self-declared state conquered by Belgrade-backed Serbian rebels in Croatia.

Mr. Arkan is the nom de guerre of Zeljko Raznatovic, a Serbian Assembly member and reputed Belgrade underworld don who commands the ``Serbian Tigers'' and ``Serbian Volunteer Guard.'' They are regarded as the most ruthless of all the major paramilitary groups.

Seselj contends that Raznatovic answers directly to Mr. Bogdanovic. Seselj and Raznatovic are included on a United States list of suspected Serbian war criminals, and both they and Bokan have been accused of atrocities by international human rights groups.

Seselj claims that he is speaking out in response to the arrests this month by the Milosevic regime of about two dozen of his followers on what he contends are trumped-up charges of rape, looting, illegal arms possession, and other crimes allegedly committed as paramilitary fighters.

Whatever the veracity of the charges, the arrests are undoubtedly part of a smear campaign Milosevic launched to discredit Seselj, whose career and party he helped build through extensive exposure on state-run television.

Milosevic turned on Seselj after his former prot, in a direct challenge to his erstwhile patron's power, withdrew his support for Serbia's minority SPS government for failing to tame sanctions-fueled economic chaos.

Faced with a no-confidence vote, Milosevic dismissed the Serbian Assembly and called for elections on Dec. 19, determined that the SPS should recapture the control it lost when it failed to win a clear majority in 1992 polls.

Analysts believe there is a more fundamental reason for the timing of the allegations made by Seselj and Bokan.

The pair, analysts say, are obviously worried they will be sacrificed as scapegoats to the UN War Crimes Tribunal in an attempt by Milosevic to encourage the international community to end the sanctions on Belgrade.

``Seselj and Bokan are trying to cover their backs,'' a Western diplomat says. ``They are saying that if Milosevic pulls the rug out from under them, they will do the same for him.''

Seselj says he will continue speaking out even though Milosevic could order his arrest to silence him.

``When the time is right, we will release other details,'' Seselj says. ``The final blow will be such that Slobodan Milosevic will pack his bags and leave.''

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