Serb authorities close in on Milosevic

Ex-dictator allegedly sold gold abroad illegally

March 01, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - The Belgrade prosecutor's office announced yesterday that it has asked police to investigate allegations that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic illegally sold gold abroad and kept the proceeds in the bank accounts of foreign-based companies.

The move marked the first time that authorities here have taken a formal legal step toward arresting the former strongman, who has been indicted by the United Nations war crimes tribunal and faces domestic allegations ranging from corruption to ordering political assassinations.

The move by Serbian prosecutors was triggered by reports alleging that Milosevic illegally sent 380 pounds of gold to Switzerland last fall. The prosecutor's office issued a statement saying it had asked police to "provide more information and ... check out the press reports" about the gold.

Yesterday's development comes as investigators appear to be closing in on the top levels of the former regime. On Friday, former secret-police chief Rade Markovic was arrested on suspicion of ordering an assassination attempt in which four aides to a former opposition leader were killed.

Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said yesterday in London that Markovic's arrest "will open the doors to deal with ... other areas."

The Beta news agency, quoting an anonymous source, reported yesterday that authorities have set March 10 as the deadline for Milosevic's arrest.

The United States has threatened to cut off financial aid to Yugoslavia, whose dominant republic is Serbia, if the Balkan nation fails to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal by March 31.

Serbian officials have said they would prefer to prosecute Milosevic on domestic charges rather than send him to The Hague, Netherlands, where the international court is based.

Widespread speculation about the impending arrest prompted a warning by Zivorad Igic, a top official of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, that seizing the former president could trigger violence.

Igic said he had told Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a leading advocate of tougher action against Milosevic, that such steps could pose "a threat of civil conflict."

Meanwhile, a nationwide poll by the respected Argument agency that was published yesterday showed a massive shift in public sentiment against Milosevic. Asked whether Milosevic should be put on trial for war crimes, without any specification where the trial should take place, 60 percent of respondents answered "yes" and 17 percent said "no."

When asked whether Milosevic should surrender to the war crimes tribunal or perhaps simply leave the country, 56 percent said he should give himself up, 31 percent said he should not and 13 percent said he should go into exile.

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