BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) — Slobodan Milosevic has pledged to ignore any summons to appear for questioning about alleged wrongdoing ranging from fraud to war crimes during his 13 years in power, an associate said Thursday.
"Milosevic told me personally that he'll never answer to any court subpoena" said Sinisa Vucinic, an official of the Yugoslav Left neo-communist party led by Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic.
Vucinic was among the approximately 50 die-hard supporters on the street Thursday where Milosevic lives in the upscale Belgrade Dedinje district. The crowd said they would protect the ex-president from arrest by guarding his residence around the clock and vowed to prevent officials from delivering a summons to Milosevic for questioning.
"We will protect our supreme commander and hero with all available means," Vucinic said.
Suggesting that Serbs would rise up to protect Milosevic, Vucinic said: "From Kosovo alone, 50,000 rifles and heavy weapons were transferred and distributed to citizens."
Zivorad Igic, another Milosevic top aide, warned of "civil clashes" if Milosevic is arrested, in comments carried by B-92 radio.
But support for Milosevic has melted away since October, when a brief revolution forced him to acknowledge that he lost elections and he stepped down.
Former Interior Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic said the gathering was prepared to "protect territorial integrity, freedom and social justice — everything that Milosevic represents."
Milosevic, along with Stojiljkovic and two other associates, is wanted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for alleged involvement in atrocities during the crackdown on Kosovo Albanians.
But the authorities who replaced his government want him to stand trial in Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, before considering any extradition request from the Netherlands-based court.
On Wednesday, authorities took the first legal step against Milosevic nearly five months after his ouster, ordering a police probe into reports that the former president spirited huge amounts of gold out of the country.
In Bern, the Swiss capital, the Economics Ministry said it was investigating whether gold shipped from Yugoslavia last fall can be linked to Milosevic. The gold was refined in Switzerland, and the proceeds from its sale were sent to two companies in Cyprus and Greece, Swiss officials said.
The Yugoslav investigation, ordered by the Belgrade prosecutor's office, could lead to charges ranging from corruption to war crimes. It was not immediately clear when Milosevic would be detained since the announcement marked only the start of a preliminary investigation.
Rejecting moves to have him tried at home as insufficient, a leading U.S. human rights group Thursday urged the Washington to withhold economic assistance to Yugoslavia unless he is extradited to The Hague, for trial by the U.N. court.
"Now that the arrest of Milosevic seems imminent, the U.S. government must be firmer than ever about the need to cooperate with the international tribunal," said Holly Carter, executive director of the Human Rights Watch's branch dealing with the Balkans.
Washington has given the new authorities in Belgrade a March 31 deadline to start "cooperating" with the war crimes tribunal, or risk losing promised millions of dollars in aid and membership in international financial organizations.
The chief war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said European aid to Yugoslavia should also be linked to cooperation with her court.
Many Serbs consider the court biased, and President Vojislav Kostunica has argued the extradition of Milosevic and other Serbs to The Hague would "destabilize" his new government.