Police seize activists at Greek reception
BELGRADE, Sep 8, 2000 -- (Reuters) Serbian police seized four opposition activists at a diplomatic reception to which they had been invited to meet the Greek foreign minister on Thursday, and freed them only after he demanded their release.
The four members of the student-based movement Otpor (Resistance) were freed by police later in the evening after visiting Foreign Minister George Papandreou lodged a formal protest.
The activists of Otpor, denounced regularly by the Belgrade government as a terrorist and fascist organization, finally met Papandreou at his Belgrade hotel after leaving custody.
"We just finished a meeting with Mr. Papandreou, during which both regret and anger were expressed," Otpor member Slobodan Homen, one of the activists detained by police, told Reuters by telephone after midnight local time (2200 GMT).
The activists said Yugoslav security officials had ordered them to leave the garden of the Greek ambassador's residence during the evening reception there. "We were kicked out from the party," Homen said.
Police then seized the four Otpor activists outside and took them away in two cars. They were held for about two hours.
The semi-official Athens News Agency said that on hearing of the detentions the Greek minister had immediately lodged a diplomatic demarche, or warning, with his Yugoslav counterpart Zivadin Jovanovic, who promised to investigate.
The agency said Papandreou had made clear to Jovanovic that relations between the two countries would be tested if those arrested were not freed immediately.
"We reacted immediately and the issue was rectified," he said. "I feel that this incident is then considered over with," Papandreou told Reuters.
OTPOR ACTIVISTS OFTEN DETAINED
"It is obvious they decided to prevent Papandreou from meeting us. But they haven't succeeded," Homen said.
Police regularly detain Otpor activists, usually for wearing T-shirts bearing its clenched-fist logo or for staging events that mock the government.
Papandreou, the only senior official of a NATO government to have visited Belgrade since last year's Kosovo conflict, earlier on Thursday met Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian President Milan Milutinovic.
Both men have been indicted by a UN court for war crimes allegedly committed by Yugoslav forces in Kosovo last year.
Papandreou said he had told Yugoslav Foreign Minister Jovanovic that Yugoslavia's presidential and parliamentary elections on September 24 were an important test.
Europe expected "first of all a free and fair electoral process," Papandreou said. "The world will be watching."
In Washington, a State Department official said it was "unfortunate that any European leader of Papandreou's stature would have to meet with an indicted war criminal".
"I think it was really the Serbs who imposed upon Papandreou that he meet with Milosevic," the official said.
Asked about the U.S. position, Papandreou said his European Union colleagues had seen both the "necessity and usefulness" of his visit to Belgrade.
"I have not come here to pass judgement, I am not a court, but to see how we can move ahead beyond the past," he said, adding that he believed his message had been understood.
The Greek minister also held lengthy talks on Thursday with opposition presidential candidate Vojislav Kostunica, who opinion polls show enjoys a wide lead over Milosevic in voter support.
The state Tanjug news agency said the talks between Milosevic and Papandreou were "open, frank and comprehensive".
Milosevic praised the Greek people's "solidarity" with Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war. He also slammed the West's policy of "pressure and blackmail" against Yugoslavia, saying it was ill-advised and without prospects of success.
Yugoslavia is under Western sanctions because of its role in the bloody breakup of the Yugoslav federation during the 1990s.
Greece has traditionally close ties with fellow Orthodox Serbia, and opposed the NATO bombing last year. However, the government has supported EU and U.S. calls for democracy.