Former Yugoslav leader Milosevic in standoff with police

Saturday, March 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Rejecting a warrant, Slobodan Milosevic told police trying to bring him to justice that he would rather die than surrender Saturday, after loyalists guarding the former president prevented his arrest by spraying gunfire at riot squads storming his villa.

As the standoff continued some 15 hours after the raid, an Interior Ministry source told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that Milosevic said he did not ``recognize these police and these authorities, all of them being NATO servants.''

The former president's personal guards fired at police with automatic weapons and pistols, preventing them from entering Milosevic's house and arresting him. Three people, including two policemen, were injured in the police raid.

Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic, in effect Serbia's police chief, said the assault was halted out of fear there would be bloodshed. But other officials suggested the lull was temporary, and President Vojislav Kostunica was meeting with top officials Saturday afternoon.

``Police have a task'' to arrest Milosevic ``today,'' said Zoran Zivkovic, the interior minister of Yugoslavia, which links Serbia and much smaller Montenegro. Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic also said that ``we expect that everything will be resolved during the day.''

But a defiant Milosevic declared he would not go peacefully. In a meeting with the police official conducting the operation at the scene, Milosevic told the official ``he won't go to jail alive,'' Mihajlovic told reporters.

Milosevic is wanted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, for alleged involvement in atrocities against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority. But Mihajlovic said the purpose of the attempted arrest was not to turn Milosevic over to the tribunal, ``but to hand him over to an investigative judge, under domestic laws.''

The police action came on the very day the U.S. Congress had set as a deadline for Yugoslavia to begin cooperating with the U.N. war crimes tribunal. But Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said the deadline was not a factor, adding ``conditioning of that kind is unacceptable for a sovereign country.''

Washington had threatened Belgrade with a suspension of $100 million in economic aid if it did not comply.

Mihajlovic said some of those guarding the former president were drunk and that one bodyguard and about 20 heavily armed Milosevic loyalists were holed up inside the house.

``Either he will face the judge on his own, or we will do it by force,'' he declared, after the police push on the villa. ``We will not be stopped by a bunch of drunkards who have bloodied their hands guarding their beloved leader.''

The raid revealed a potentially dangerous split between police loyal to the pro-democracy authorities of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic, and the federal army, which still has officers who apparently back Milosevic

Just hours before police stormed the residence, the head of the army unit officially guarding it handed over the keys of the main gate of the compound to members of Milosevic's private bodyguard, Djindjic said. Mihajlovic condemned ``Yugoslav army obstruction,'' which he said prevented an inquiry into the incident.

The army later issued a statement denying it had in any way obstructed the arrest. But the Serbian government accused ``individual'' generals of ``systematically'' hindering the work of the police.

Mihajlovic said criminal charges were filed against Milosevic on Friday. Police official Miodrag Vukovic said the charges were abuse of power and corruption that cost the state close to $100 million. The maximum prison term on conviction of those charges is five years, he said.

The raid began with masked special police, some in plain clothes, advancing across the vast yard and firing stun grenades toward the villa in the Dedinje district. Officers met with some resistance in the villa yard.

``We won't let them inside. We won't let them arrest him,'' Milosevic aide Zivorad Igic told AP by mobile phone before police hauled him away. Milosevic loyalists initially driven off by police reappeared Saturday. About 250 of them chanted, ``Slobo, Slobo.''

Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, and their daughter Marija were believed to be inside the villa with the former president.

The police action followed conflicting reports about whether Milosevic was in custody. At one point, Milosevic appeared outside his home, apparently to reassure supporters he had not been arrested.

``I'm just drinking coffee with my comrades and I'm very well,'' he told local television.

Kostunica's government has been split over whether to surrender the former president. Many officials insist Milosevic must be tried at home for ruining the country before he is handed over to the tribunal to face war crimes charges.

He has been investigated for corruption, embezzlement and allegedly ordering the assassinations of political opponents.

Laws bar extradition of Yugoslav nationals to a foreign country, but Parliament is reportedly preparing a bill that may allow Milosevic to be extradited.

Since his ouster from power last fall, Milosevic has lived under police surveillance in his villa.

The tile-roof villa was built for former Yugoslav communist dictator Josip Broz Tito in 1978, two years before he died. It is said to contain secret underground passages, as well as underground vaults containing jewelry _ gifts to Tito during his 36-year rule.

Milosevic rose to power in Yugoslavia during the waning years of communist power in Europe. In 1991, he triggered the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia, sending his army in losing wars against the pro-independence republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia.

His brutal attempts to put down an ethnic Albanian rebellion in Serbia's province of Kosovo led to NATO airstrikes that ultimately pushed his forces out of the province in 1999.

When Milosevic refused to accept electoral defeat in October, opposition supporters rioted. He conceded defeat Oct. 6, but remained politically active.