Honors for Serb Shelved

Posted April 1, 2003 at 6:34pm

Seeking to avoid embarrassment, House leaders pulled a resolution honoring a slain Serbian leader Monday after allegations surfaced that he was involved in transferring arms to Iraq.

At the request of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), House leaders on Monday abruptly yanked from the floor Rep. Doug Bereuter’s (R-Neb.) resolution offering the condolences of the House following the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Lantos, incidentally, was one of five co-sponsors of Bereuter’s bill, H.Res.149, but several sources said the California Democrat grew worried about the appropriateness of the resolution following a report Sunday night on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that alleged the late Serbian leader was involved in arms sales to Iraq.

Bereuter spokeswoman Carol Lawrence confirmed that “there was some concern expressed by one or more Members about that and Mr. Bereuter decided to postpone” consideration of the resolution.

Lawmakers instead voted on a measure by Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to name a post office after former North Carolina state Sen. Jim Richardson.

Other sources described Bereuter’s resolution — which was also co-sponsored by Reps. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) — as “on hold indefinitely” and said that Lantos and others have also requested a briefing from the State Department some time this week to get to the bottom of the matter.

“As you know, postponing consideration of a bill on suspension is not unusual,” remarked one Democratic Congressional staffer familiar with the matter. “We are doing some fact-checking on this and have arranged to meet with and receive a briefing from the State Department and once we’ve received that, we’ll reconsider going forward with it.”

Cecelia Prewett, communications director for Emanuel, said her boss was standing behind Lantos’ request.

“We fully support Mr. Lantos requesting the briefing and the documents that would give us more insight as to this gentleman having had ties that were untoward,” Prewett explained. “You err on the side of caution.”

Nonetheless, the controversy over Djindjic seemed to catch lawmakers off-guard this week, and Bereuter is seeking answers to his colleagues’ questions, an aide said.

When asked whether Bereuter, who serves on the International Relations Committee and as vice chairman of the Select Intelligence Committee, still supported his own measure, Lawrence said she could not answer that question. Bereuter did not respond to a request for an interview on the topic.

Aides to other co-sponsors of the bill also seemed hard-pressed to say whether their bosses were aware of the information reported by CBS prior to sponsoring the resolution.

The 50-year-old Djindjic was gunned down March 12 by two sniper bullets in front of his office in the center of Belgrade.

One week later, Bereuter offered a resolution expressing the House’s “deepest sympathy” and condemning the killing as a “heinous attack on democracy.”

Close to a dozen House and Senate lawmakers took to their chambers’ floors following Djindjic’s death to pay homage to the fallen leader, who is widely credited with helping to transform the brutal Balkan dictatorship created by Slobodan Milosevic into a democratic republic.

But Sunday night’s “60 Minutes,” in which correspondent Ed Bradley reported evidence of illegal arms sales from Yugoslavia to Iraq, seems to have sounded some alarms on Capitol Hill.

According to Bradley’s report, detailed evidence of illegal arms sales first came to light last October when NATO-led peacekeeping troops raided the Orao aviation factory in a Serb-controlled section of Bosnia.

Documents found there included an $8.5 million contract to repair the engines of Saddam Hussein’s fighter planes and advice from Yugoslav experts to Iraq’s Defense Ministry on how to avoid detection by U.N. weapons inspectors.

Bradley’s report also referred extensively to a report by the International Crisis Group — a nonprofit, multinational group that provides field-based analysts to prevent and resolve deadly conflict — titled “Arming Saddam: The Yugoslav Connection.”

The ICG’s board is comprised of more than four-dozen individuals, ranging from Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez to former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark.

The board also includes several former U.S. government officials such as ex-Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), former Assistant Secretary of State Morton Abramowitz, former National Security Adviser Richard Allen and former U.S. Ambassador and Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Kenneth Adelman.

An executive summary of that report states that “significant elements of the arms activity, as the NATO raid indicates, were spread across borders to include not only the Serb entity in Bosnia but also the Federation.”

The report further states that “top authorities,” including Djindjic, “either knew about the sales and did nothing to halt them — or should have known and acted.”

James Lyon, the author of that report and the director of ICG’s Serbia Project, told “60 Minutes” that Serbian weapons sales to Iraq could have totaled as much as $1.5 billion to $3 billion.

But last December, State Department officials brushed off the report from the Brussels-based think tank and said it contained errors.

“We cannot endorse their report as an accurate assessment of the situation because it contains speculative assertions and allegations as well as errors in fact,” Philip Reeker, deputy spokesman for the State Department, was quoted as saying by Agence-France Press.

A spokeswoman with the Serbian embassy in Washington also denounced the ICG report and the subsequent CBS coverage.

“Our reaction to the CBS piece was extremely negative here at the embassy,” said Dragana Aleksic, counselor for press, information and culture for the embassy of Serbia and Montenegro. “We find the insinuation that the prime minister was in any way involved in arms deals simply outrageous.”

Aleksic noted that Djindjic was one of the first politicians to fully denounce the Orao affair and remarked that the leader was in fact brutally murdered because he decided to take on the organized crime elements involved in such dealings.

“His funeral was attended by delegations from 40 countries,” Aleksic said. “On top of it, Secretary of State Colin Powell signed the book of condolences. I don’t think this would have been done for a man involved with criminal activities.”

Aleksic said it is her hope that U.S. lawmakers will soon put Bereuter’s resolution back on the floor and approve it.