Serbs On Our Side

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The last time Serbian soldiers saw combat, they were being bombed out of Kosovo by U.S. Tomahawk missiles. Now they're all set to fight alongside their former American foes. During a trip to Washington this summer, sources tell TIME, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic pledged to send up to 1,000 troops to aid American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S., which is trying hard to persuade allies to share some of the military burden in Iraq, quickly agreed. The initial deployment: a mix of 250 army officers and members of the gendarmerie. "We don't need peacekeepers," says a U.S. official involved in the deal. "It's going to be a combat mission." Preparations are under way to send a Serbian battalion to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to hunt down al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban guerrillas.

But controversy could be stirred up by the Serbs' choice of leader for the force — General Goran Radosavljevic, a.k.a. Guri, chief of the gendarmerie. During the Kosovo war, he led a cluster of antiguerrilla teams called Operative Posse Groups (OPG). Several human-rights organizations claim OPG committed atrocities against civilians; the 2001 Human Rights Watch report alleges, for instance, that they killed 41 ethnic Albanian civilians in the village of Cuska in western Kosovo in May 1999, though no indictment has been issued against Radosavljevic. A New York court is also considering charges that he and other police officials are responsible for the deaths of three Albanian Americans from New York City, captured and then executed in southern Serbia by Serbian police in the summer of 1999. The Serbs — who admit that unknown police officials were behind the killings — say the men were trying to join Albanian guerrillas.

Despite these allegations, a senior Serbian security official tells TIME that Radosavljevic "insists that he be the commander of the unit." Neither Radosavljevic nor the Serbian government would comment. But Radosavljevic recently told a Belgrade newspaper that he has never been implicated by the Hague war-crimes tribunal and that "I'm ready to go to court to prove my innocence if it turns out to be necessary." A U.S. State Department official, meanwhile, would confirm only that Serbian and Montenegrin officials visited U.S. military leaders in Washington and at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., last week for consultations on their possible participation in the Afghanistan campaign. Radosavljevic was not part of that delegation — he sent his deputy instead.