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Crossing Continents Friday, 4 August, 2000, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
Brinksmanship in Montenegro
Montenegro's Spezijalni - the special police force
By Phil Rees

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Travelling along Montenegro's mountainous coastline, with its neat beaches and stone built towns dotted all over a truly spectacular landscape, the thought of a civil war seems unreal.

But it's an increasing possibility today in Montenegro, where tensions with its powerful neighbour, Serbia, have been dramatically rising over the past eighteen months.

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The Republic of Montenegro is Serbia's last remaining partner in Yugoslavia. A decade ago, Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics with Serbia at its centre. Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia left Yugoslavia after civil wars. And now Montenegro could be following suit.

Montenegro's leader, Milo Djukanovic, is locked in a tense stand-off with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, threatening to leave the Yugoslav Federation unless Milosevic grants Montenegro greater powers.

Djukanovic was once a protégé of Slobodan Milosevic, who's now wanted for war crimes at the international criminal tribunal in The Hague.

There's an increasing sense of doom in Montenegro following the recent announcement by Slobodan Milosevic that he will seek re-election as Yugoslav President in polls on September 24th.

An internal European Union analysis has predicted that Milosevic would probably win at least another four years in office. A fear in Montenegro is that Milosevic, fresh from success in the polls, could use the Yugoslav Army to remove the Djukanovic government by force and seize control of the country.

Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic
For the last 18 months President Djukanovic has been building up his own personal army, the special police forces of the Montenegrin Interior Ministry, specifically to combat this threat.

But Djukanovic's forces directly challenge the power of Slobodan Milosevic and the Yugoslav Army. So its existence could, in itself, provoke a conflict inside Montenegro.

An officer in Montenegro's Special Police has told Crossing Continents that Britain's SAS trained his unit in close combat warfare and anti-terrorism skills.

He claims that the SAS went to Montenegro in the aftermath of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia last summer.

The special police force in training
The role of the SAS emerged during an interview with 23-year old Velibor, an officer in the Spezijalni, the special police. Speaking in the grounds of the Hotel Zlatica, now converted into a barracks on the outskirts of Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, Velibor described how much the unit gained from the SAS' experience of counter-terrorism. "We learnt a lot", he said.

The role of the SAS in Montenegro is highly sensitive. Milosevic's supporters have regularly claimed that "foreign forces" are arming and training the Spezijalni.

But Montenegro's government denies any involvement by foreign nations in the training or arming of its police. The Ministry of Defence in London refused to comment on the interview - the usual practice on matters regarding the SAS.

Slobodan Milosevic
Crossing Continents also gained the first public interview with a member of the 7th Battalion of the Yugoslav Army, the feared military unit created by Milosevic in Montenegro.

Ivan, a softly spoken man in his late thirties, who fought for the Yugoslav Army during the wars that ripped the former federation apart, described why Milosevic established the battalion and what its orders would be if Montenegro were to seek independence from the Yugoslav Federation.

"If Milo Djukanovic decided to call for a referendum or to move in any other violent way towards independence, the 7th Battalion will follow the orders of the Presidency. If the situation escalates into a conflict where the gun will decide the future of Yugoslavia, then we are ready, as we have been training for that."

Montenegro is Serbia's last remaining partner in Yugoslavia
Ivan gave a rare insight into the make-up of the unit that Milosevic established on Montenegrin soil. "They are almost all young people, up to 40 years old, well trained and educated. It's very easy to join the 7th Battalion if you are a member of the pro-Milosevic Party (the SNP) and you're affiliated to Yugoslavia. The data is kept secret and nobody other than the commander of your unit knows who else is a member of the 7th Battalion. We are called just by our first names or nicknames. There is no exact data on the number of people in the 7th Battalion as you don't know who else is a member."

Milo Djukanovic describes the 7th Battalion as a "paramilitary force". "It's the military machine of Mr. Milosevic. It isn't anything new. Mr. Milosevic formed similar paramilitary groups in his previous conflicts, with the ambition of provoking internal conflicts."

The Spezijalni say they take the threat from 7th Battalion seriously
President Djukanovic is quick to defend the role of the Special Police, the Spezijalni. "The special police units have already existed in Montenegro for some time - they are not recently formed. We have enlarged them considerably to cope with the increased threat we now face. In order to avoid a terrible war, we've created some professional units which will be able to defend Montenegro. It's not some aggressive or provocative act."

During a break from a training session, Spezijalni officer Velibor sipped coffee in an area that was once the hotel café. He told us the threat from his fellow countrymen in the 7th Battalion is treated very seriously:

"If somebody wants to do something bad to our countrymen, you have to shoot him. It doesn't matter if it's your friend or your father or your brother. My very best friend - he joined the army and I joined the police. And he told me "brother, it's better for me to shoot you because if I shoot you, you can't shoot me." You know it's very sad to lose a friend in that way."

Civil war between pro-Serb and nationalist factions engulfed Montenegro twice during the last century. Velibor fears a repeat of those brutal conflicts: "It's a very similar situation to the beginning of World War Two, when the Partisans were formed as a paramilitary organisation. They were against the regular country army. And it was brother against brother - everybody shot everybody. It's very sad because it's a similar thing that might happen today."

Djukanovic explaining need for special police force
"we need professional units to defend Montenegro"
Velibor explaining how weapons are normal
"If this war starts it will never end."
Ivan explains how to join 7th Battalion
describes the secrecy surrounding the military unit created by Milosevic
See also:

04 Aug 00 | Correspondent
17 Aug 00 | South Asia
08 Jul 00 | Europe
08 Jul 00 | Europe
07 Jul 00 | Europe
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