BELGRADE Serbia's prime minister said on Monday he was the victim of a "cunning and dirty" plot to topple him following a flurry of leaks linking the Socialist leader to a suspected drug trafficker.
Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has denied there was anything untoward in his meetings in 2008 and 2009 with Rodoljub Radulovic, known as Misha Banana.
But the leaks, drip-fed to media by 'police sources', have rocked the six-month-old government just as speculation grows that Dacic's SNS coalition partner, the biggest party in parliament and riding high in polls, wants to oust Dacic and force a snap election.
"The situation isn't pleasant for any of us," Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) leader Aleksandar Vucic, defense minister in Dacic's government, told a news conference.
He denied the party wanted a snap election, but added: "No one will be spared, regardless of their name, surname or position ... The prosecution knows its job."
SNS officials say their priority is to start membership talks with the European Union which would be a milestone for Serbia as it recovers from a decade of war and isolation in the 1990s under late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
The EU is expected to decide on whether talks can begin in the next several months, depending on progress in EU-mediated negotiations aimed at mending ties between Serbia and its former Kosovo province. Dacic, 47, is Serbia's chief negotiator.
On Monday, Serbian dailies Blic and Informer cited police transcripts of intercepted phone calls between Radulovic and Dacic when he was interior minister in a previous government, and between Radulovic and Dacic's then chief of staff.
According to the reports, Dacic met Radulovic at an upmarket seafood restaurant in Belgrade in 2009 and Radulovic reported back on their conversations to alleged drug boss Darko Saric.
Dacic says he was unaware at the time of police suspicions of Radulovic, who now stands accused of trafficking two tonnes of cocaine from South America to Spain with Saric in 2009. Both Radulovic and Saric are at large.
Dacic has distanced himself from remarks by a senior aide on Saturday blaming SNS for the leaks. On Monday, he said he was the victim of attacks "ranging from the most primitive to the most cunning and dirty."
"I have never been warned (by police) that persons I have met had criminal backgrounds," Dacic said after meeting his Bosnian counterpart, Vjekoslav Bevanda. "Nor have any of my communications been targeted against state, national or security interests."
Dacic is also interior minister in the current government, and has been at odds with Vucic for weeks over who to appoint to the helm of the Serbian police, a powerful political lever since Milosevic was ousted in 2000.
Analysts said Serbia appeared to be sliding towards a fresh election, barely a year after the last in May 2012.
The SNS has seen its support surge on the back of a crackdown on organized crime and graft led by Vucic. EU accession talks could propel the party close to an outright majority in parliament.
"It's hard to imagine the biggest political force does not stand behind all of this," said prominent lawyer and political commentator Bozo Prelevic, who served in Serbia's first cabinet after Milosevic's fall.
"Dacic has demonstrated he's a serious political Houdini," he told Reuters. "But in these circumstances, it'll be hard for him to stay on as minister or prime minister, and I don't think his party will want to bear his burden."
(Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Jon Hemming)