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EU, U.N. back embattled Serbian rights defender

BELGRADE (Reuters) - The European Union underscored its support on Thursday for an embattled Serbian rights official, under fire from the ruling conservatives who accuse him of harbouring political ambitions.

It follows a warning from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday about a “campaign of personal attacks” against independent rights ombudsman Sasa Jankovic in some pro-government media, “fuelled” by remarks from senior state officials.

In what critics of the government have called an orchestrated attempt to discredit Jankovic, tabloid media reports have questioned his involvement in the death of a friend who committed suicide with a gun registered to Jankovic in his apartment in 1993, printing leaked police documents.

In an open letter on Tuesday, Defence Minister Bratislav Gasic, a party ally of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, called on Jankovic to tell the truth about what he described as “the murder”.

Gasic’s ministry has been the target of probes by Jankovic over several recent incidents and suspicions voiced by the ombudsman of illegal military surveillance.

Jankovic has accused the ruling party of trying to smear his reputation through insinuation.

On Thursday, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, made a point of meeting Jankovic during a visit to Belgrade that focussed on the country’s long bid to join the 28-nation bloc.

Hahn tweeted: “Stressed EU’s full support for his important work + f respect of independent bodies.”

Serbia, a former Yugoslav republic, is pushing to open the first so-called ‘chapter’ of EU accession negotiations 15 years after the fall of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

But diplomats say the row over Jankovic reflects the short shrift Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party gives to criticism of government policy, with the party enjoying a hold on power not seen since Milosevic.

Vucic has repeatedly dismissed allegations that Jankovic is under attack from his party, but told reporters on Wednesday: “Imagine someone was killed by my gun, what would you do; you’d drink on my blood day and night, metaphorically speaking.”

Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Toby Chopra