BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbian police arrested 80 people including a former minister on graft charges on Saturday, stepping up an anti-corruption drive days after opening talks on joining the European Union.
In the biggest sweep of its kind in the country in decades, the former head of the anti-corruption agency, executives of state-owned companies, two ex-government officials and several mayors were also held.
They were charged with abuse of office, money laundering and financial crime, covering alleged offences dating back to 2004 and embezzlements totaling 7.8 billion dinars ($70 million), Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said.
On Dec. 14 Serbia launched accession talks with EU authorities, during which it will be under pressure to demonstrate progress in dismantling a legacy of corruption and organized crime that gained a strong foothold in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The interior ministry said 80 people had been arrested so far. Stefanovic said police were searching for five more, and that a further 39 individuals were to be charged.
The ex-minister held was Slobodan Milosavljevic of the opposition Democratic Party, who held the Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management portfolio from May 2007 to July 2008.
He is charged with abuse of office during his term and also while he served as Chamber of Commerce head from 2004 until 2007, the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry said Zorana Markovic, who headed the government’s anti-corruption agency from 2010 to 2012, was also arrested, as was the former general manager of Serbia’s only steel plant.
Democratic Party leader Bojan Pajtic said the arrests were politically motivated. Most of those held are from his party, though some are members of the governing Socialist Party.
In June, authorities charged more than three dozen police and customs officers with corruption.
Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; editing by John Stonestreet