Zagreb gives cool response to claims that hundreds of Croatian ‘mercenaries’ are heading to Ukraine to fight the Russians.
A still image taken from handout video made available by the Russian Defense Ministry’s press-service shows a Russian serviceman guarding a checkpoint in the Luhansk region, Ukraine, 4 March 2022. EPA-EFE/RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE/HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Russia summoned Croatia’s defence attaché to the Defence Ministry on Thursday, Croatian media reported, over allegations that some 200 Croatians mercenaries had gone to fight in Ukraine, Igor Konashenkov, Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson, was reported as saying.
“We have brought to [the attaché’s] attention that we know of about 200 Croatian mercenaries who are coming to Ukraine,” Konashenkov reportedly said.
Russian news agency Interfax wrote: “Last week, around 200 mercenaries from Croatia came to Ukraine and joined the Ukrainian nationalistic battalion in the south-east part of the country.
“The defence attaché was informed of the illegal activities of Croatian citizen Denis Seler, who took part in fighting in south-eastern Ukraine in 2015 and is putting together units of Croatian mercenaries to be sent to Ukraine,” Konashenkov added.
N1 news outlet reported that, in his reply to the Russians, the attaché wrote that neither Croatia’s Defence Ministry nor any other Croatian state institution has any connection to individuals who might be in Ukraine, or information on those individuals.
Seler, formerly a leader of the Bad Blue Boys, Dinamo Zagreb’s ultras group, who once spent six years with Ukraine’s far-right Azov battalion, said the Russian claim was “laughable”.
“I thought these were serious people. On the basis of what information are they saying this? These are the moves of desperate people,” Seler told news site Index.
Seler said he doubted that 200 Croatians would assemble for any cause. “In Croatia, you can’t gather 200 people to protest for higher salaries, let alone something else,” he said.
A BIRN investigation in 2019 reported that, in 2014 and 2015, Seler was among 20 or 30 Croatians who fought in the far-right Azov volunteer battalion against Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Last weekend, several Croatian media reported on volunteers going to Ukraine to fight the Russians though whether they were paid mercenaries is unclear.
“Ukraine helped us in 1991, and again after the earthquakes in Zagreb and Banovina. That’s why we are going to help Ukrainians in the war,” one volunteer told Vecernji list daily, referencing Croatia’s independence war against Serb-led Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic on Sunday said he had no information about volunteers or mercenaries heading for Ukraine and was just getting his information from the media.
The government has no part in it, he said. “Every departure to Ukraine is a personal act and a personal responsibility,” he said.
Balkan nations are sharply divided over the Russia-Ukraine dispute.
Serbs have strong sympathies with fellow Orthodox Christian Russians, while many Croats back Ukraine’s resistance to domination by Moscow, Serbia’s close ally.
Volunteers are definitely heading to Ukraine from some countries, however.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, last week said she sympathised with British nationals joining the fight in Ukraine, “Absolutely, if that’s what they want to do,” she said. “That is something people can make their own decisions about.”
A website has been set up for would-be UK fighters by Macer Gifford, who spent several years fighting ISIS in Syria.
Britain’s Foreign Office has, however, reminded all Britons that it advises against any travel to Ukraine.
Ukraine has lifted visa requirements for foreign volunteers who wish to enter the country and join the fight against Russian forces, the Washington Post reported this week, after President Volodymyr Zelensky created the International Legion of Territorial Defence over the weekend, and called on volunteers to “join the defence of Ukraine, Europe and the world”.
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