Stanisic and Simatovic, Belgrade’s Security Strongmen

Serbian security officials Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic are facing judgement in The Hague for allegedly controlling the most notorious combat units that fought in the Balkan wars.

This article is also available in: Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp

Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic

“Milosevic’s men on the ground” was the most common description of these two leading Serbian state security officials – Jovica Stanisic, chief of the interior ministry’s State Security Service and his right-hand man, Franko Simatovic, commander of the service’s Special Operations Unit.

On Thursday, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY will hand down its verdict after the two men’s war crimes trial.

The unit which the ICTY believes that they controlled had various names during its existence from 1991 until 2003 – the Knindze (‘Ninjas’ from the town of Knin), the Scorpions, Arkan’s Tigers, the Red Berets and the Special Operations Unit.

The armed group changed names and commanders several times but was always referred to as ‘the Unit’, until its secretive existence was officially made public in 1996.

Known for their physical prowess and brutal fighting methods, its members spread fear wherever they went during the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia.

Their uniforms were augmented with masks, usually decorated with emblems depicting eagles or wolves, but they were best-known for their distinctive headgear – the red berets that gave them one of their nicknames.

Several low-ranking servicemen from the Unit have been convicted by local courts over the its violent campaigns in Croatia and Bosnia, but its battlefield commanders have never faced trial for war crimes.

However the Unit’s last commander, Milorad Ulemek, known as Legija, was sentenced to 40 years in jail for his role in the assassination of late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003, while two other former commanders, Zeljko Raznatovic, known as Arkan, and Radovan Stojicic, known as Badza, were killed in mafia shootings in Belgrade after the war.

According to the ICTY prosecution, the people who organised, supplied, financed, supported and directed the training of the Unit were Stanisic and Simatovic.

The indictment alleges that they were part of a joint criminal enterprise together with Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic, Croatian Serb commander Milan Martic, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic and Bosnian Serb ex-president Biljana Plavsic.

Their aim, it says, was the forcible and permanent removal of the majority of non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia.

The idea to form a special unit that would protect Serbs outside the country, in areas of the former Yugoslavia which were already on the brink of war, came from former president Milosevic in March 1991.

Speaking at a gathering of local Serb leaders, Milosevic said: “The government has an assignment to prepare additional groups which will make us safe and enable us to defend the interests of our republic, but also the interests of Serbs outside Serbia.”

A month afterwards, Jovica Stanisic, who at the time was chief of state security, and Dragan Vasiljkovic, known as Captain Dragan, went to the Croatian town of Knin, where the leadership of the Krajina Serbs was based, to help local Serbs form a secret military unit.

Captain Dragan, who was later accused of war crimes by Croatia, was the first to train local Serbs and created the armed group known as the Knindze to help Croatian Serbs to maintain their self-proclaimed Republic of Srpska Krajina.

Frenki, the arrogant boss

 Franko Simatovic and Zvezdan Jovanovic, who was jailed for the murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic

The formation of the Unit was a secret operation, conducted under the auspices of the Belgrade leadership, while the man who took care of operation on the ground was Franko Simatovic, known as ‘Frenki’, who did intelligence work in Croatia and Bosnia.

According to the ICTY indictment, Simatovic “functioned under the authority of Jovica Stanisic”, while many witnesses at the trial described him as Stanisic’s “eyes, ears and right hand”.

Despite the fact that Simatovic denied that Serbian state security ever coordinated or controlled special units on the ground, a speech he made in 1996 became crucial evidence for the ICTY prosecution.

Announcing the official establishment of Serbia’s Special Operations Unit, the JSO, in 1996, Simatovic said: “The unit was formed in May 1991, when Yugoslavia was falling apart and from its foundation the unit functioned as a tool for maintaining the national security of the Serb people… in all their ethnic areas.”

A number of other witnesses, mainly insiders from the Unit, confirmed that they were part of state security and that they were on its payroll.

“Salaries in the Berets and Tigers were paid in cash, in special envelopes, while in the Berets people received twice as much as the Tigers,” Dejan Sliskovic, a former member of the Unit, said at the trial in 2010.

Other ex-members claimed that “everyone knew that Frenki controlled the units”. Some described him as “bossy and arrogant”.

The trial also heard that the various commanders of the Unit – like Arkan or Legija – were “regularly coming for consultation at the headquarters of Stanisic and Frenki”.

Arkan and Badza’s bloody traces

 Arkan and his fighters at a training centre in the Croatian village of Erdut I Photo: Printscreen

As the conflict started to spread to other areas of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Serbian leadership decided to put another man besides Frenki in the picture, and appointed Radovan Stojicic, known as Badza, as the head of Territorial Defence.

The ICTY has listed Stojicic as a part of the joint criminal enterprise together with Milosevic, Simatovic and Stanisic, but has never issued an indictment against him. For the most brutal operations in parts of Croatia and eastern Bosnia, Stojicic engaged Arkan and his Serbian Volunteer Guard unit, popularly known as Arkan’s Tigers.

According to the indictment against Simatovic and Stanisic, Arkan’s men were responsible for killing at least 40 detainees near the Dalj mountain in Croatia and 26 Croat civilians who were dumped in the River Danube, while in Bosnia, the Tigers allegedly killed at least 80 people in the town of Sanski Most and 20 non-Serb civilians in the town of Zvornik.

Arkan, who the ICTY indicted for war crimes in 1996, never faced trial because he was shot dead in Belgrade in 2000.

Stanisic and Simatovic later denied any control over Arkan’s fighters despite the fact that Raznatovic claimed several times in interviews that he acted under the command of the Territorial Defence force of Slavonija, Baranja and Western Srem.

During the war in Bosnia in 1992, Ulemek, the last commander of the Special Operations Unit, joined Arkan’s Tigers. Ulemek joined the Tigers after serving in the French Foreign Legion, the origin of his nickname Legija. He was later recognised by Stanisic and Milosevic as a man they could trust and was appointed commander of the JSO in 1996.

The fall of Stanisic

Special Operations Unit protest in Belgrade in 2001 I Photo by Beta

Two years after the JSO was officially formed in 1996, Stanisic was removed from his position as state security chief. Following the end of war in Bosnia, protests against Milosevic erupted in Belgrade, and Stanisic met opposition leaders on several occasions, raising suspicions about his loyalty.

Milosevic also suspected that Stanisic had connections with foreign secret services, including the CIA, because he advocated that the international community become involved in the conflict in Kosovo.

As a result, Stanisic was fired.

The Unit existed until 2003, when it was disbanded because many of its members including Legija were directly involved in the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Djindjic.

In the same year, the ICTY filed an indictment against Stanisic and Simatovic, charging them with murder, persecution on political, racial and religious grounds, deportation and inhumane acts.

The men were soon arrested and their trial started in 2008.


This article is also available in: Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp

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