BELGRADE Alleged Balkan drugs boss Darko Saric, who surrendered to Serbian police last week after almost five years on the run, denied on Monday any involvement in trafficking cocaine from Latin America to Europe.
Saric, one of the most wanted figures in the crime-riddled Balkan region, faces 13 indictments including the trafficking of 5.7 tonnes of cocaine from Latin America and the laundering of 22 million euros in Serbia.
Saric, 43, told his first court hearing in Belgrade that the charges against him had been fabricated.
"The only thing I have not been indicted for is an earthquake," joked Saric.
Belgrade media have speculated that Saric might reveal during his trial the names of Serbian politicians believed to have helped him with money laundering operations.
"I was friends with some influential and rich people (in Serbia)," he told the court but gave no further details.
Saric decided to surrender after Serbian agents identified him with the help of CIA in Latin America.
He had set no conditions for his surrender, other than to see his wife, son and daughter for 30 minutes at an airport in neighbouring Montenegro, en route from an unspecified third country to Belgrade.
His detention followed last year's arrest in Serbia's former Kosovo province of Naser Kelmendi, blacklisted by the United States on suspicion of trafficking drugs to Europe.
Organised crime flourished during the Balkan wars in the 1990s as socialist Yugoslavia fell apart, spawning sophisticated crime networks that exploited poorly policed borders, a glut of cheap firearms and a political and security establishment riddled with corruption.
The Balkan region is a well-known transit route for illicit drugs heading to western Europe.
All former Yugoslav republics have since set their sights on joining the European Union, alongside members Slovenia and Croatia, and face pressure to tackle organised crime as a condition of integration.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Gareth Jones)