U.S. rethinks pursuit of Milosevic US rethinks pursuit of Milosevic

- NBC -

Plans to capture and try him
for war crimes on back burner

By Jim Maceda

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia, Nov. 3 —  The United States is not contemplating any plan to capture Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and try him for war crimes, senior U.S. officials told NBC News. Rather, U.S. intelligence is continuing to bank on a partly-covert operation to squeeze Milosevic’s assets abroad and restrict the business of his political and financial cronies. But so far investigators have come up empty handed.

       THE INTELLIGENCE operation, codenamed “Matrix,” was put into place last summer after Milosevic signed a peace deal that allowed NATO peacekeepers into Kosovo after a 78-day bombing campaign.
       Since the June signing, the United States decided not to pursue the Yugoslav president inside Serbia, leaving that to the Serb people themselves. Rather, Washington has tried to:

Urge U.S. allies to find and freeze Milosevic family assets hidden abroad and reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Use CIA computers to hack into his foreign bank accounts and drain funds without the Yugoslav strongman’s knowledge.

Harass Milosevic’s cronies and military henchmen with threatening faxes and phone calls in a ploy to win their “hearts and minds,” and further isolate Milosevic.
But so far, sources told NBC News, only Swiss investigators have offered to look for Milosevic’s bank accounts, and they have come up empty handed. No personal assets have been found, and no bank accounts have been frozen.

       Sources say that legal concerns about invasion of privacy have seriously impeded the CIA’s covert attempts to hack into Milosevic’s accounts. And some analysts have concluded, based on recent trips to Yugoslavia, that the plan to get to Milosevic’s wealthy backers was mostly smoke and mirrors.
       “There may have been a lot of deceptions involved to make Milosevic and his family feel like the CIA has some support amongst his cronies,” William Arkin, a military analyst, told NBC News. “But I don’t see that actual support.”
       Still, U.S. officials said a travel ban — imposed by Washington and its European allies — hurts Milosevic and businessmen close to him, who have also had their travel restricted. An international arrest warrant for Milosevic, who is accused of committing crimes against humanity in his attempt to keep control of Kosovo, also limits his freedom.
Milosevic himself has begun somewhat of a comeback in Serbia, one of two remaining Yugoslav republics after a series of civil wars beginning in 1991.

       The president has been waging a public relations offensive. By reopening oil refineries, bridges and railroads, all destroyed by NATO bombs, Milosevic is sending a very strong message: “I’m back. ... I’m still in charge, and I’m going nowhere.”
       Despite the loss of four wars, 10 years of economic sanctions, an 11-week pounding by NATO that killed and injured potentially hundreds of Serbs and withdrawal from Kosovo, Milosevic is far from political defeat.
       “He’s a tough, wily adversary,” Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe told NBC News. “I think he’s determined to hang on to power.”
       In the end, analysts said, only the Serbs can corner Milosevic. But protesters who have taken to the streets by the thousands in recent weeks remain divided over tactics. And the Serb opposition, unable to unify against Milosevic, is weak.
A recent poll published by an independent body in Belgrade revealed that, while two-thirds of Serbs polled want Milosevic out of power, the key opposition leaders were even less popular than the Yugoslav president.

       “The best hope is he’ll respect the constitutional procedures of Yugoslavia and leave office when his term expires, which is within a couple of years,” said Mike O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.
       But even if Milosevic does strike some kind of deal with moderate opposition forces to step down sometime before his term expires in July 2001, many in Belgrade believe that the Ultimate Survivor will find a way to continue to rule from behind the scenes for a long time to come.