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Serbia probes officials' alleged ties to organised criminals

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(BELGRADE) - Serbian prosecutors are investigating alleged contacts between top state officials and suspected organised criminals after reports surfaced that Prime Minister Ivica Dacic had met a key aide of an alleged drug kingpin, an official said Wednesday.

Organised crime prosecutor Miljko Radisavljevic said he had told police to "collect data on alleged meetings" between top state officials and members of a "narco-clan" led by Darko Saric, an alleged Balkan cocaine king who has been on the run for more than four years.

"All that is happening is unpleasant and difficult, but we are solving these cases once and for all," said Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, leader of the conservative Serbian Progressive Party, the country's strongest political force.

For weeks, Serbian media have speculated about alleged contacts between top government officials with Saric's aides and suspected drug traffickers.

Saric and his 19-member group have been on trial in absentia on charges of cocaine smuggling from South America to Europe. He has also been indicted for money laundering in Serbia.

Dacic, who at the time was Serbia's interior minister, said he had met one of Saric's aides in 2008, but denied any wrongdoing.

"This is a cunning and dirty plot against me... All those proven guilty who I know will end in prison. The fact that I know them is not protection but a handicap for them because I will be even more ruthless because they betrayed my trust," Dacic told reporters.

The affair has rocked the uneasy ruling coalition between Vucic's party and Socialists led by Dacic, but both leaders have insisted the government, formed last July, would not collapse.

Vucic said his party would not seek early elections, but warned "no one will be spared" during the investigation.

"The state is stronger then any individual... We must not allow anything to become an obstacle to Serbia's path towards the European Union," Vucic said.

Serbia obtained EU candidate status last March, but has yet to be given a date for membership talks. The decision is conditioned with further progress in a EU-sponsored dialogue with breakaway Kosovo.

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