US defends anti-Milosevic office in Budapest

BUDAPEST, Aug 18, 2000 -- (Reuters) The United States on Thursday defended its decision to open an office in Budapest to support democratic forces in Yugoslavia, saying it would promote unified opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic.

With the Sept. 24 election there fast approaching, a key opposition leader and a Yugoslav government official both condemned the Tuesday announcement as an interference in Yugoslavia's internal affairs.

But State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said, "We're not in the position of endorsing particular candidates. What we want to do is support a unified opposition so that, again, the people of Serbia can elect leaders that can truly represent their goals."

In announcing the office in the capital of Hungary, Yugoslavia's northern neighbor, Reeker said on Tuesday the aim was to "support the full range of democratic forces in Serbia and coordinate there in Budapest".

Belgrade broke off diplomatic ties with the United States last year at the start of NATO's 11-week air campaign against Yugoslavia.

Washington has denounced pre-election manoeuvring by Milosevic, who has been indicted by a United Nations court for war crimes allegedly committed by his forces in Kosovo last year, and made repeated calls for his removal from power.


The candidate chosen by 15 Serbian opposition parties, Vojislav Kostunica, also criticized the U.S. move, saying it took "a great degree of arrogance" to say promoting democracy in Serbia was a long-term U.S. goal.

"This is the most flagrant interference in internal affairs of our country," Kostunica said in a statement on Wednesday.

Reeker responded: "We believe that Mr. Kostunica is indeed a genuine democratic leader, and he is entitled to his opinions. That doesn't mean that we have to agree with him in all of those opinions."

Yugoslav deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic on Thursday predictably criticized the new office, which will be headed by the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, William Montgomery, as an effort to "run the Serbian opposition."

Sainovic said the United States was trying to gain control of Yugoslavia by helping opposition parties in the elections for president, parliament and local governments.

Reeker recalled that Sainovic was an indicted war criminal who, "like his cohort, Mr. Milosevic, and others, belongs in The Hague rather than trying to make comments about the opposition or democracy in Serbia."

Like Milosevic, Sainovic has been indicted by the Hague-based UN International Criminal Tribunal.

"There is a democratic mainstream in Serbia, and that's something that we very much want to support, and we want those people to know that we support them," Reeker insisted. "We're going to continue to do so through the office in Budapest."

There he said U.S. officials could meet with democratic representatives of political parties, media or nongovernmental organizations.

Senior U.S. officials have met with many Yugoslav opposition figures in the last few months trying in vain to promote a unified front against Milosevic in the elections.

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