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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 26 March, 2003, 16:24 GMT
Serbia's 'elite' enemy within
By Gabriel Partos
BBC south-east Europe analyst

Special police kiss hand of Orthodox priest in October 2000
The special police helped ensure the opposition victory in 2000
The Serbian Government has announced that it is disbanding the elite police force, the Special Operations Unit (JSO) with immediate effect.

The decision followed the arrest on Monday of an assistant commander of the unit on suspicion of having taken part in the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic two weeks ago.

The JSO was formed in 1996 out of a group known as the Red Berets, which was set up by Serbia's security service in 1991, shortly before Croatia's declaration of independence.

The purpose of the Red Berets was to fight alongside, as well as to arm, train and co-ordinate the activities of various Serbian paramilitary formations in Croatia - and later in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Uncontrollable force

Many of these paramilitaries were run by gangland bosses - the best-known among them the late Zeljko Raznatovic or Arkan.

The Djindjic murder has galvanised the Serbian Government into acting against organised crime - it has done more in two weeks than it did during the previous two years
In the process of establishing and maintaining the Red Berets, the long-serving head of state security during the Milosevic era, Jovice Stanisic, managed to establish a degree of control over Serbia's expanding criminal underworld.

But with the Red Berets recruiting many hardened criminals, the symbiotic relationship between Serbia's secret police and mafia bosses increasingly turned into an uncontrollable - and unreliable force.

The transformation of the Red Berets into the JSO formalised their status but otherwise made little difference.

They even continued to be known popularly by their earlier name.

Alliance of convenience

In October 2000, the JSO took the side of the opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, as he was refusing to accept his election defeat.

The unit's commander at the time, Milorad Lukovic (better known as Legija) did a deal with Mr Djindjic and refused to crack down on the anti-Milosevic protesters.

Legija with unit
Legija (l) is still on the run
But this new-found alliance of convenience did not last long.

Although Legija was removed following a number of incidents - including the burning down of a disco in the northern town of Kula where the Red Berets have their base - his successor, Dusko Maricic, was considered equally unreliable.

Legija, by now the alleged leader of one of Belgrade's main mafia groups, the Zemun clan, continued to maintain contacts with ex-comrades in the Red Berets.

Now, under the state of emergency declared following Prime Minister Djindjic's murder, those arrested include:

  • The Red Berets' last commander, Mr Maricic

  • Their first commander, Franko Simatovic - known as Frenki

  • Ex-security police chief and Red Berets founder, Mr Stanisic

  • The alleged assassin and Red Berets senior officer, Zvezdan Jovanovic.

However, the man the government accuses of being the mastermind behind the murder, Legija, remains on the run.


The disbanding of the Red Berets is not without risks.

To reduce the immediate danger, police checkpoints have been erected on the roads leading to the Red Berets' base in Kula, and army planes have reportedly overflown the area.

Zoran Djindjic
Djindjic's death prompted moves to disband the JSO
The government has decided to pick off those among the Red Berets whom it believes are linked to major crimes.

It is expected that many of those arrested will be charged.

But the last thing the authorities would now want to do is to let loose several hundred highly-trained Red Berets who would naturally gravitate towards organised crime.

Instead, most of the Red Berets will be redeployed in other forces.

One of the most likely recipients of ex-Red Berets is the Gendarmerie - another elite force that was formed after the fall of Mr Milosevic, partly to counterbalance the Red Berets.

With a strength of over 1,200, the Gendarmerie has four units which are based in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis and Kraljevo.

Immediately after the Djindjic murder, gendarmes were deployed in several army barracks.

They have now reportedly taken over the Red Berets' facilities.

Army units

In addition, the police have a special anti-terrorist unit, the SAJ, which over the years has functioned independently of the Red Berets.

Although further trouble from the Red Berets is now unlikely, under the state of emergency the government can rely also on the army's special forces.

There are two main units:

  • The counter-terrorism detachment of the Military Security Service, known as the Cobras, which also provides personal security for Serbia's top leaders

  • The Falcons, part of the Military Intelligence Service, normally involved in reconnaissance and sabotage, but which has, in addition, its own anti-terrorist unit

The Djindjic murder has galvanised the Serbian Government into acting against organised crime.

It has done more in two weeks than it did during the previous two years.

But there's still a long way to go to rid Serbia of one of Mr Milosevic's most lasting legacies.


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