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Yugoslavia: Defense Minister Assassination Is Latest Of Many Killings

  • Jolyon Naegele

Unknown assailants murdered Yugoslavia's defense minister last night as he was dining in a Belgrade soccer-club restaurant. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele notes, Pavle Bulatovic is not the only close associate of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to be assassinated, but he is the most senior.

Prague, 8 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The assassination of Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic is the latest in a string of more than a dozen largely unsolved killings in recent years of prominent Yugoslav figures, many of them close to Milosevic.

It comes just over three weeks after the murder of the Serbian underworld figure and warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, known as Arkan.

Other victims have included two Belgrade police colonels (Dragan Simic and Milorad Vlahovic), a deputy interior minister (Radovan Stojicic), an independent journalist and Milosevic family acquaintance (Slavko Curuvija), the general secretary of the Yugoslav Left party (Zoran Todorovic) of Milosevic's wife Mirjana Markovic, as well as several businessmen and members of the Belgrade underworld.

Bulatovic, a Montenegrin, had been Yugoslav defense minister for six years. But his public career began earlier -- in 1991, when he was appointed interior minister of Montenegro in the first freely elected government in the former Yugoslavia's smallest republic. During his brief tenure, Montenegrin militia laid siege to the coastal resort city of Dubrovnik in autumn 1991 and sacked the city's airport and adjacent coastal communities.

In July 1992, Bulatovic was summoned to Belgrade and appointed Yugoslav interior minister. That was just months after a war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina in which Bosnian Serbs backed by Belgrade fought Bosnian Croats, Muslims and Serbs who opposed radical-nationalist policies.

Bulatovic remained Yugoslav interior minister for two years. During that time, Belgrade continued to back Serbian separatists in Croatia and Bosnia while maintaining an effective state of martial law in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Then, in 1994, Bulatovic was named the rump Yugoslavia's defense minister. He oversaw the end of Belgrade's support for Serbian separatists in Croatia and Bosnia, and their mass exodus from both republics the next year.

Bulatovic presided over what was reputed to be one of the largest and best-equipped armies in Europe, a war-tested military force that suffered relatively little from 78 days of NATO air strikes last spring. The military participated with interior ministry forces and paramilitaries in the expulsion of some 800,000 Kosovo Albanians and Turks last year.

Bulatovic's name was on the list of Yugoslav officials barred by the international community from traveling abroad. But he was not among top Yugoslav officials publicly indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. They included the Yugoslav Army's chief of staff (Dragoljub Ojdanic), the Serbian interior minister (Vlajko Stojiljkovic), the deputy Yugoslav prime minister (Nikola Sainovic) and the presidents of Yugoslavia and Serbia. Whether the tribunal ever drafted a secret indictment of Bulatovic or declined to do so because of insufficient evidence is unclear.

The chairman of the Yugoslav opposition Democratic Party, Vojislav Kostunica, says Bulatovic's killing could lead to insecurity and spark conflict in the top levels of government. He says the assassination may have been the result of rivalries within the ranks of the current regime under Milosevic.

A leader of the opposition Alliance for Change (Vuk Obradovic -- no relation to the victim of the same name) says the killing is, in his words, "evidence that the state of law in Yugoslavia has ceased to exist." The Yugoslav government met in emergency session last night and issued a statement saying Bulatovic was "the victim of a classic terrorist act."

Observers in Yugoslavia offer different explanations for Bulatovic's assassination. One theory suggests that Milosevic and others close to the Yugoslav president wanted to remove a key witness to the regime's involvement in war crimes. Bulatovic is not believed to have been a decision-maker, but rather a figure-head minister.

Another hypothesis suggests a Montenegrin connection. But observers say that blaming Montenegro could simply serve as a pretext for a military crackdown on the Yugoslav republic, to destroy separatist tendencies.

Other theories suggest a settling of scores or an organized-crime connection. One of Bulatovic's two dining partners at his last supper was Major-General Vuk Obradovic, who heads Yu-Garant Bank, which was previously the military branch of Yugoslavia's central bank. The Belgrade daily "Blic" says 70 percent of Yugoslavia's military budget last year was processed through Yu-Garant Bank. Perhaps, goes the supposition, Obradovic was the intended target and Bulatovic an innocent bystander.

Obradovic and the third dinner partner, the owner of the Rad soccer club restaurant -- Mirko Knezevic -- are reported to have been only slightly injured in the shooting. Bulatovic, however, was struck in the heart and was pronounced dead a short while later at the adjacent military hospital.

Belgrade newspapers today quoted eyewitnesses as saying one or two gunmen fired three rounds from an automatic weapon through the restaurant window from the nearby soccer field. The witnesses said the gunmen then ran to a car, where accomplices were waiting, and drove off. Belgrade dailies say the car with a Belgrade license plate and carrying four passengers ran several police roadblocks in their successful escape.