Russian aid center in Serbia rejects claims that it is an intelligence base

Russian-Serbian Humanitarian CenterStaff at a Russian disaster relief center in southern Serbia have rejected claims by American officials that the facility operates as an espionage arm of Moscow’s foreign policy in the Balkans. The Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center was built in 2012, at a cost of nearly $40 million, following an agreement between Belgrade and Moscow. Its stated mission is to “provide humanitarian emergency response in Serbia and other Balkan states” through the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need and training local emergency response crews. The center is located in the outskirts of Serbia’s fourth largest city of Niš, not far from the country’s border with Kosovo, a former Serbian province that unilaterally declared independence in 2008. Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence, a decision that is strongly backed by Russia. It is also close to the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s peacekeeping force stationed in Kosovo, which houses 4,000 international troops, including 600 Americans.

Western officials have raised concerns that the disaster relief center is in reality an intelligence base, from which Russia conducts some of its espionage operations in the Western Balkans. It has also been suggested that the center could operate as a military base in a potential Russian military operation in the former communist state. In June, the United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee, publicly described the compound as “the so-called humanitarian center” in Serbia. Speaking during a US Senate hearing on southeastern European politics, Yee said the Department of State was concerned about the center’s unofficial use. He also expressed reservations about Moscow’s request that the Serbian government grants the center diplomatic immunity, similar to that which covers the activities of the Russian embassy in Belgrade.

Moscow responded to American allegations of espionage by inviting local and international media representatives to the center on Wednesday. The center’s co-director, Viacheslav Vlasenko, told reporters that the center was “very open”, adding that its staff consisted of 15 Serbs and five Russians who were dispatched to Serbia from Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, known as EMERCOM. Vlasenko said that Moscow’s request for diplomatic immunity for the center was solely aimed at reducing the annual taxes that the facility had to pay.

Regular readers of intelNews will recall allegations made last October by authorities in Serbia’s neighboring state of Montenegro —later repeated by Britain— that nationalists from Russia and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by police in Montenegro on election day, October 16, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. In response to allegations that the coup had been hatched in neighboring Serbia, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić said that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow. Russia has vehemently denied the allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 July 2017 | Permalink

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Macedonian ex-spy chief is among officers indicted for wiretap scandal

Zoran ZaevSeveral former and current intelligence officers, including a former director of the national spy service, have appeared in court in Macedonia, accused of illegally wiretapping thousands of people on orders of the government. The wiretap scandal has sparked the deepest political crisis in the impoverished Balkan country, which has existed since declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

The scandal was revealed last year by Zoran Zaev leader of the leftwing Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which is the main political opposition in the country of 2 million people. According to information that has since surfaced in the national media, the wiretapping scheme targeted nearly 6,000 telephone numbers between 2008 and 2015. The wiretaps allegedly resulted in the recording of private conversations of 20,000 people, including members of the media, the judiciary, law enforcement, politicians, and church officials. Zaev claims that the wiretaps were orchestrated by the country’s prime minister at the time, Nikola Gruevski, and his cousin, Saso Mijalkov, who led the country’s main spy agency, the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence (UBK), from 2006 until 2015. Zaev’s revelations led to the resignation of Prime Minister Gruevski, which resulted in early elections that have been scheduled for December of this year.

The names of 10 former and current intelligence officers who were charged last Friday have not been made public. But the office of the special prosecutor said that the individuals include a former director of the UBK. Prosecutors also said they have evidence that proves that some of the wiretaps continued even 2015, when Zaev revealed their existence. The recently resigned Gruevski, who is running again for prime minister with the rightwing VMRO-DPMNE party, has dismissed Zaev’s allegations as lies. He also accuses the special prosecutor of being a secret supporter of the opposition and of helping Zaev implement a constitutional coup against his administration. Next month’s elections have been already postponed twice, which leads some in the media to speculate that they may not take place until 2017.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 November 2016 | Permalink

Montenegro says “nationalists from Russia” planned to kill prime minister

MontenegroAuthorities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro say that “nationalists from Russia” and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s prime minister and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. As intelNews reported last week, the coup allegations surfaced on October 16, after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by authorities for allegedly planning a military coup against the government of Montenegro. The arrests took place on election day, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people.

On Sunday, at a press conference in Montenegro’s capital and largest city, Podgorica, the country’s Chief Special Prosecutor, Milivoje Katnić, reiterated claims that the failed coup aimed to prevent the reelection of Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, whose push for Montenegro to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has prompted strong objections from Moscow. Katnić told journalists that the plotters had hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer”, for the task of killing Đukanović. After killing the Prime Minister, the plotters had planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup in the former Yugoslav Republic, said the special prosecutor. He added that authorities had confiscated weapons, military uniforms and nearly $140,000 in cash that were found in the possession of the alleged coup plotters.

Asked about the fate of the 20 alleged coup plotters, Katnić said that 14 of them remained in custody in Podgorica, while six others had been extradited to Serbia. The Serbian government of Prime Minister Vučić has accepted Montenegro’s allegations that the coup was hatched in Serbia and has offered to help investigate alleged links between the plotters and the Russian state. However, said Katnić, his team of investigators had no evidence of direct involvement by Russia in the alleged coup plot. But, he said, “two nationalists from Russia”, whom he did not name, were among the leaders of the plot. In a press statement, Katnić’s office said that other coup plotters in addition to the 20 men arrested, remained at large, having escaped from Serbia. They could now be in Russia, he said. Moscow has not responded to the claims by the Montenegrin authorities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 07 November 2016 | Permalink

Political tension rises in Serbia amidst espionage allegations

Montenegro coupA weapons cache that was found buried last week near the apartment of Serbia’s prime minister has fuelled tensions in the Balkan country, amid rumors that a failed coup in neighboring Montenegro was planned in Serbia by Russian spies. Serbian authorities announced the discovery of the stockpile on October 29; it included ammunition, hand grenades and a portable missile launcher and was located near the residence of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić. The government later said that the weapons find dated back to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and was not connected with  at Vučić’s administration. But politics in the country remain tense, following allegations made earlier in October that Russian intelligence agents used Serbia as a base to plan a military coup in Montenegro.

The coup allegations surfaced on October 16, after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by Montenegrin authorities for allegedly planning a military coup against the government. The arrests took place on election day, as Montenegrins were voting across the country of 650,000 people. According to media reports, the failed coup aimed to prevent the reelection of Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, who is pushing for Montenegro to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Đukanović, who was eventually reelected, claimed that the coup plotters were supported by Russia. Moscow has raised strong objections to the possibility of Montenegro joining NATO. A few days later, Serbian Prime Minister Vučić appeared to substantiate Đukanović’s allegations. According to Vučić, the Serbs who were arrested in Montenegro had hatched their coup plot in Serbia, assisted by Russian intelligence. Vučić added that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow.

However, Serbian authorities made no arrests following the October 16 developments in Montenegro, despite much media attention in Belgrade. Shortly prior to the alleged failed coup in Montenegro, Nikolai Patrushev, former director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and current secretary of Russia’s Security Council, visited the Serbian capital. There were rumors that he returned to Moscow with three Russian intelligence officers who had been caught engaging in espionage by Serbian counterintelligence. Meanwhile, some Serbian newspapers alleged last week that an official in the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration had been arrested for selling classified information to the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Meanwhile, Russian and Byelorussian troops arrived in Serbia this week to hold joint military exercises with their Serbian counterparts, codenamed Slavic Brotherhood.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 November 2016 | Permalink

Many arrested in Bosnia for having links with Islamic State

BosniaAuthorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have announced the arrest of several people on suspicion of having direct links with the Islamic State and other militant groups fighting in Iraq and Syria. At least 11 people were arrested by police in simultaneous raids at a number of locations on Tuesday, including businesses and private homes, across the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. A police spokeswoman said the eleven men had been charged with having links to terrorist groups, financing terrorist groups, or inciting and helping organize criminal acts. A number of them were also charged with recruiting young men and women to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq, she said.

A statement issued by the office of the Bosnian prosecutor on Wednesday morning said the arrests were part of a “major operation […] to track down some 15 people” suspected of having close operational ties with Islamist organizations in the Middle East. The arrests were carried out less than a day after another five people were arrested in Sarajevo for illegally transporting weapons and ammunition from Bosnia to Germany. Large caches of weapons and ammunition were seized during the raids.

Depending on the source, there are estimates that the largely Muslim Balkan country of 3.8 million has supplied between 150 and 330 fighters to the Islamic State, the militant Sunni group that today controls much of Syria and Iraq. Hundreds more have joined from cities and towns in Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania. Of those, several dozen have already been killed while fighting for the Islamic State. Security services in Bosnia are reportedly monitoring a number of unregistered mosques in the country, which are believed to be preaching a version of Salafi Jihadism that promotes the worldview of the Islamic State. Many of these mosques are led or supported by individuals from Africa and the Middle East. These men first went to Bosnia in the first half of the 1990s to fight in the war against Serbia and Croatia, two predominantly Christian regions of the former Yugoslavia. They ended up settling in Bosnia after marrying local women.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 24 December 2015 | Permalink

Who tried to burn down the US embassy in Skopje in 1999?

Dragan Pavlovic-Latas

Pavlovic-Latas

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
On March 25, 1999, approximately 200 people broke off from a much larger crowd of pro-Serbian demonstrators in downtown Skopje, Macedonia, and, in a military-style operation, tore down the security perimeter around the US embassy and occupied its courtyard for several hours. With the US ambassador, Christopher Hill, and most of the embassy staff inside the building, the occupiers set fire to embassy cars and tried to set the building alight. By the time they were dispersed by police, the rioters had managed to destroy all the cars parked in the embassy’s courtyard, as well as a large part of the embassy building’s exterior. The demonstrators were protesting US and NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia, which had begun on the previous day, sparked by brutal ethnic clashes in the Kosovo region. But the question remains: who, if anyone, organized the attempted burning down of the US embassy? Read more of this post

Journalist reveals names of 300 Iranian spies in Bosnia

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A Croatian journalist has revealed a secret document containing the names of 300 Iranian intelligence operatives who operated in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2004 until 2007. Domagoj Margetić, one of Croatia’s most uncompromising investigative reporters, has published on his website a .pdf document thath lists the names of several hundred Iranian agents who received official authorization from the embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Tehran to enter the Balkan country. According to Margetić, numerous Iranian academics, as well as random Iranian government employees, are included in the intelligence operatives’ list, which implies they carried out intelligence missions in Bosnia while traveling under academic or diplomatic cover. Insiders have noted that the long list is indicative of the intensification of Iran’s intelligence activities in the Balkans and southern Europe in recent years, which they attribute to the “reorganization of Iranian intelligence infrastructure in the Balkans”. The disclosed document of Iranian intelligence operatives is available in .pdf format here, with a mirrored link here.