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Friday, 3 December, 1999, 16:14 GMT
Belgrade untangles 'Operation Spider'
Special forces Serbian paramilitary "special forces" were active in Bosnia and Kosovo

By Nick Thorpe in Belgrade

On the night the Yugoslav government accused France of training secret agents to assassinate President Slobodan Milosevic, the late film on the pro-government, Politika channel was 'Our Man in Havanna', by Graham Greene.

An Englishman in pre-war Cuba is recruited by British intelligence to set up his own spy network on the island.

He reluctantly accepts - largely to be able to fund his daughter's expensive taste for horse-riding. He has little sense of secrecy - a map on the wall of his apartment is marked with his new agents.

The choice of the film was either perfect scheduling, or fortunate coincidence.

President Milosevic President Milosevic: In the line of fire?
These are the details of the alleged French plot against the Yugoslav president, as presented by information minister, Goran Matic:

Ten years of activity by the French secret service in the former Yugoslavia was drawing to a spectacular climax. In April this year, during the Nato bombing, a group of Serb freebooters, ex-legionnaires, and trained assassins, all allegedly on the pay-roll of France, volunteered for service in the Yugoslav 'special forces' in Kosovo.

There they were responsible for various atrocities against ethnic Albanians, but failed in their main objective, the assassination of Remi, a top Kosovo Liberation Army commander.

Special training

After Yugoslav troops withdrew, the leader of the gang, Yugoslav Petrusic, now known as Peroni, re-entered the province, but this time as an officer in the French army.

During the summer, he and his collaborators received special training at Nato bases in Bosnia, where stage-sets of Belgrade streets were built, to prepare them for the assassination of President Milosevic.

Serbia is undoubtedly full of paramilitary mafiosi, responsible for some of the ugliest episodes of murder, rape and torture in modern history
When captured by Yugoslav police, Mr Petrusic is alleged to have confessed to all this, and more - his part in the massacre of Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995, and his years as a French assassin in Zaire, and Algeria.

The whole sorry tale, the information minister suggested, shows what kind of people are really responsible for the break up of Yugoslavia, and the demonisation of the Serb nation.

Serbia is undoubtedly full of paramilitary mafiosi, responsible for some of the ugliest episodes of murder, rape and torture in modern history.

The 10th Sabotage unit of the Bosnian Serb army, mentioned in the allegations, was involved in the massacre at Srebrenica. And no proof is needed that the West in general does not like President Milosevic - not only his country, but his home was bombed by Nato in the spring.

"Enemy" action

The French may be historical allies of the Serbs, but they are hardly seen as friends any longer
But there are other elements which make the story ring false. All Serbia's declared "enemies" in the world are said to be in some way involved in the plot - the Montenegrin government, who are pushing for independence, and the moderate Serbian leadership in Bosnia who have insulted Belgrade by abandoning the Yugoslav dinar as their currency.

The French may be historical allies of the Serbs, but they are hardly seen as friends any longer. And by pinning some of the worst crimes against other peoples in the Balkans on French agents, the government could wash its own hands of the guilt.

With elections due next year, the idea of "internal" and "external" enemies, and they way they collaborate with each other, is likely to be a central plank in the government parties campaign.

Level of fear

The regime is claiming credit for all the work done since June to repair the damage done during the Nato bombing. While at the same times blaming all the remaining problems of the population on the way the world has unfairly ostracised Serbia.

Some opposition leaders have publicly said that Operation Spider was concocted by the government as a warning to the domestic opposition - be careful, or you too might be arrested as a spy. Or perhaps a spider.

No-one really knows if the plot is true, half-true, or false, but each real or imagined assassination attempt increases the level of fear in society.

The spirit of Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian Serb student who shot the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo in 1914, casts as long a shadow over the end of the 20th century, as it did over the beginning.
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See also:
26 Nov 99 |  Europe
French deny Milosevic plot
03 Nov 99 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Belgrade Wonderland
22 Apr 99 |  Europe
Nato: Milosevic not a target
21 Apr 99 |  Europe
Nato strikes Milosevic HQ
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