Serbia recalls all staff from embassy in Macedonia, alleges espionage

Serbian President Aleksandar VucicSerbia recalled its entire diplomatic staff from its embassy in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Monday, claiming that it wanted to protect its diplomats from “offensive intelligence activities” directed against them. The move came without warning and surprised journalists in the two former Yugoslav republics. No official reason was given for the recall on Monday morning. Later, however, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said that he had decided to recall the diplomats back to Belgrade due to “sufficient evidence of highly offensive intelligence activities against certain bodies and institutions in Serbia”. He did not specify what he meant, but added that the duty of the government of Serbia was to ensure that “our people be prepared and ready”.

Some reports in Macedonia media suggested that Serbia’s move was related to rumors in Skopje that the Macedonian government plans to support an expected attempt by the Republic of Kosovo to join the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Kosovo was a province of Serbia until 2008, when it proclaimed its independence, a move that was backed by many Western powers, including the United States. However, Serbia has not recognized Kosovo’s independence and has actively opposed Kosovo’s attempts to become a full member of international bodies. Belgrade successfully blocked Kosovo’s entry into UNESCO in 2015. At that time, the former Serbian province country did not receive enough votes to join the organization. But there are concerns in Serbia that, Kosovo might apply again this year and that this time it may be successful.

Serbia has kept a cautionary stance on the current political crisis in Macedonia, which began in 2015 when thousands of people took to the streets in Macedonian capital Skopje to protest against the conservative government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The crisis deepened in late 2016, when many intelligence officers, including a former director of the national spy service, were accused of illegally wiretapping thousands of people on orders of the government. Under growing pressure, Gruevski stepped down and was eventually replaced by the leader of the center-left opposition, Zoran Zaev, who is now prime minister. During his election campaign last spring, Zaev was critical of Serbia, which he accused of behaving nationalistically against other former Yugoslav republics.

Speaking to reporters in Belgrade on Monday, Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, said he believed Serbian diplomatic staff would be back in Skopje by the end of August. Mr. Vucic simply commented that there was a “different, new atmosphere” in the Macedonian capital and said he hoped that the situation would become clearer in the coming days.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 August 2017 | Permalink

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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

Russia possibly tried to kill Montenegro PM, says British foreign secretary

Boris JohsonBoris Johnson, the British foreign secretary has said in an interview that Russian spies may have orchestrated last year’s failed attempt to kill the then-prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Dukanović. Mr. Johnson, a senior figure in the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom, was a major contender for the prime minister’s position in 2016, after the administration of David Cameron collapsed under the weight of the Brexit vote result. Speaking on Sunday morning to reporter Robert Peston, of Britain’s ITV television network, Mr. Johnson said that the West should “engage” with Russia, but warned that it should also “beware” of Moscow’s “dirty tricks” in Europe and the United States.

The British foreign secretary spoke following reports that British intelligence services called an emergency meeting with representatives of the country’s major political parties, in order to warn them that Russia planned to use cyber-attacks to disrupt regional and national elections in the country. Mr. Johnson said that the government had “no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment”. But he added that there was “plenty of evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that. And there is no doubt”, he went on, “that they’ve been up to all sorts of dirty tricks”. Some of those “dirty tricks”, said Mr. Johnson, targeted the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro, where last year there was “an attempted coup and possibly an attempted assassination”.

The British politician was referring to allegations made last October by authorities in Montenegro 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 for allegedly planning a military coup against the government. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had allegedly hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović. After killing the Prime Minister, the plotters planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup in Montenegro, according to authorities. In response to allegations that the coup had been hatched in neighboring Serbia, Serbian Prime Minister 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 vehemently denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson is preparing to visit Moscow in a few days to meet with his Russian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. He told ITV that he planned to deliver his “personal feeling” to Mr. Lavrov, which “is one of deep, deep sadness” about Russia’s foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 March 2017 | 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

Weapon used in Paris attacks was purchased in the United States

M92 Zastava PistolOne of the guns used by Islamist militants to attack locations in downtown Paris on November 13 was purchased legally through a dealer in the United States, according to a report by the Associated Press. Investigators have confirmed that several of the weapons used in the attack, which killed 130 and injured hundreds more, were manufactured in Serbia. Most are slightly modified versions of the Soviet-era AK-47, known in the West as “shortened Kalashnikov”. All were produced in a weapons factory called Zastava, which is located in the city of Kragujevac, in central Serbia. They were made in the 1980s and sold within the former Yugoslavia.

Last Thursday, however, the director of the Zastava factory, Milojko Brzakovic, told the Associated Press that he had contacted authorities in France to inform them that one of the weapons used in the Paris attacks was made in his factory and sold to a US dealer. It was an M92 semi-automatic pistol, which had been legally sold to an American online arms seller called Century Arms in May 2013. The seller, based in the state of Florida, is believed to import tens of thousands of weapons from the Zastava factory each year. Brzakovic said the M92 could only fire single shots, and was thus in accordance with American law. It sells for less than $500 a piece in the US, he said.

When asked how the weapon got into the hands of militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Brzakovic said he had no idea. He told the Associated Press that all guns exports by Zastava to Century Arms and other American weapons dealers are in strict compliance with US government regulations. Someone, he said, must have illegally modified the weapon into an automatic at a later stage. Brzakovic also said he had no idea how the weapon left America and ended up in France. All weapons exports from the US must be approved by the US Department of State, he said, so the M92 pistol must have made its way to Europe illegally.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 December 2015 | Permalink | News tip: R.W.

Is al-Qaeda holding French intelligence officers captive?

Serge LazarevićBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Two French citizens kidnapped last November by an al-Qaeda-linked militant group, while on an alleged business trip in Mali, may have connections with French intelligence. One of the two hostages, Philippe Verdon, made headlines on Wednesday, after it was alleged that he may have been executed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The website of the Agence Nouakchott d’Information, a Mauritanian news service that frequently carries AQIM press statements, said that Verdon was killed on March 10 in retaliation for France’s military operations in Mali. Verdon was kidnapped from a hotel in the northeastern Malian city of Hombori along with another French citizen, Serge Lazarević. Their families insist that the two Frenchmen were abducted while “doing a feasibility study for a future cement factory” in Mali. But is this true? Or could Serge Lazarević be the same Slobodan “Serge” Lazarević, who was implicated in a 1999 French intelligence operation aimed at assassinating Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević? As intelNews reported in January of 2009, three alleged French-handled intelligence operatives were put on trial in Serb capital Belgrade, allegedly for collaborating with a French commando team tasked with assassinating the Serb leader. The three, Jugoslav Petrušić, Slobodan Orašanin and Milorad Pelemiš, were arrested by Yugoslav authorities in November 1999, reportedly while trying to organize “10 trained commandos to storm the presidential residence”. Although sensational, the charges against the three men are hardly unique in the context of the murky intelligence history of NATO’s 1999-2000 war in Yugoslavia, which has yet to be fully written. What is interesting in this case, however, is that the three accused admitted infiltrating the Yugoslav military and routinely supplying NATO with intelligence data on bombing targets during Operation Allied Force. Read more of this post