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Yugoslavia: Serbian Deputy Premier Resigns Following Espionage Arrest

Momcilo Perisic, Serbia's deputy prime minister, resigned today, heeding calls by both Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. His resignation comes after military police seized him, a U.S. diplomat, and two others last week on suspicions of espionage.

Prague, 19 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and former Yugoslav Army commander Momcilo Perisic, who last week was detained on suspicion of espionage, remains adamant about his innocence.

Military police arrested Perisic last week (14 March) at a motel restaurant near Belgrade. Also arrested were a U.S. diplomat, John David Neighbor; Yugoslav Army Lieutenant Colonel Miodrag Sekulic; and a civilian. Police alleged that Perisic and Sekulic had passed military data to the U.S. diplomat.

Neighbor was freed after nearly 17 hours in custody. Perisic was released the following day.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic met with Perisic yesterday and asked him to resign. At a news conference yesterday, he described their discussion.

"At the meeting I advised Perisic to give up his immunity. I think it would be the worst thing for him for matters to remain unclear. It's time for a clean sweep. And to the extent that he can't prove his innocence, he should accept responsibility. But in the case he can prove his innocence, then this filth should be wiped away. This is an issue of Mr. Perisic's personal responsibility."

Perisic today sent a letter to Djindjic tendering his resignation but insisting his character and past record speak for his innocence in the case. He also agreed not to take advantage of his dual immunity as a cabinet member and lawmaker.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau, Perisic asserted his innocence but said he would resign for the greater good of the government.

"I don't want to rely on immunity. They demanded that I resign. I don't want to because I'm innocent. But to ensure the government's continued existence, I'm resigning so as to help the government and the nation out of the crisis."

Perisic is a retired general who commanded the Yugoslav Army General Staff until he had a falling out with former President Slobodan Milosevic in 1998. In October 2000, he sided with the opposition in toppling Milosevic. Perisic also has a wealth of knowledge about how the Yugoslav military functioned in Croatia in 1991, in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the outbreak of hostilities in 1992, and in Kosovo through most of the 1990s.

The Belgrade news media has speculated that the documents allegedly passed by Perisic to the U.S. diplomat concerned Milosevic and were destined for use against him at his war crimes trial in The Hague.

The government-owned tabloid "Vecernje Novosti" last night reported that Perisic claimed he had passed on information to the Americans in a bid to "respect our country's international obligations," and added that cooperation with the UN's International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague is an international obligation that takes precedence over national laws.

The daily alleged that Perisic repeatedly met the U.S. diplomat at various locations. He is alleged to have passed on telephone numbers of supposedly secure lines used by the Interior Ministry and senior government officials.

Yugoslavia's senior military prosecutor, Nikola Petkovic, says his office has sent letters to the Serbian government and the Yugoslav parliament requesting them to lift Perisic's immunity. Petkovic rejects media speculation that Perisic's alleged actions concerned the Milosevic trial.

"Those [allegations in the media] are just some writings and reports that have no connection with reality."

No one, however, is saying what sort of information Perisic allegedly passed to Neighbor. The U.S. embassy in Belgrade insists any incriminating documents were planted after Neighbor, the first secretary for political affairs, was taken away with a black bag over his head.

The U.S. has since accepted apologies from Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic for the diplomat's arrest. Kostunica appeared to play down the potentially embarrassing event when he remarked, "We want to do everything to ensure that this affair does not in any way impact on the bilateral relations of the United States and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."

Nevertheless, Kostunica said the case "has seriously shaken the foundations of our state." He told reporters in Belgrade yesterday, "For procedural and security reasons, we have only been able to see the tip of the iceberg -- this involves a very tangible case and evidence." Kostunica also defended two presidential aides who have come under fire from his political rival Djindjic for allegedly being behind the arrests.

Belgrade military analyst Bojan Dimitrijevic says he believes that any documents now being held by the Military Prosecutor's Office may be general information that is of interest to the intelligence services but which do not constitute military secrets.

"This is about the functioning of the General Staff from the inside, how the personal relations are, personnel problems. They may concern the issue of corruption and the like. In other words, something that, in some way, could be overlooked by secret services here. I'm not saying Perisic did it. But it's something that could have been of interest to a foreign intelligence service."

Several analysts and politicians in the ruling coalition say holdover generals from the Milosevic era -- particularly Army Chief of Staff General Nebojsa Pavkovic, whose term in office ends 31 March -- may be candidates for transfer to the Hague war crimes tribunal, and may be trying to create a crisis with Perisic in order to save themselves.

Perisic himself has described the attempt to "discredit" him as having been "staged in the style of the darkest dictatorial regimes."

But Kostunica denies there is any conspiracy behind the Perisic incident. The Yugoslav president said such speculation is "a textbook example of perverting the essence of the matter."