BELGRADE Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic warned on Saturday that "certain forces" were trying to topple his coalition government after media reports linked him to an alleged drug trafficker.
The reports emerged just as speculation grows that Dacic's SNS coalition partner, riding high in the polls, will quit the government and try to force an early election if Serbia clinches accession talks with the European Union by mid-year.
A close aide to Dacic said the SNS was waging a smear campaign against the prime minister, but Dacic distanced himself from that accusation.
Speaking to Reuters, he did not directly address the reports that he had met alleged drug smuggler Rodoljub Radulovic, known as Misha Banana, but said:
"This is an attack on the unity of the government and an attempt by certain forces to force elections at a time when the government has many pressing and crucial issues to deal with ...
"We believe the SNS is a fully credible partner and we want to stress that there is unity within the government."
The Serbian daily Informer and the respected broadcaster B92 cited police reports that Dacic had twice met Radulovic in late 2008, when Dacic was interior minister in a previous coalition government.
Dacic is also interior minister in the current six-month-old government.
Informer wrote that aides to the prime minister had not denied that the meetings took place but had said Dacic was not aware at the time that Radulovic was suspected of any wrongdoing.
ELECTION "ON THE AGENDA"
A senior official in Dacic's Socialist Party (SPS), speaking to Reuters, declined to confirm or deny the meetings, but angrily accused coalition partners in the nationalist Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of trying to smear Dacic.
Speculation has been brewing for weeks that the SNS, led by Defence Minister Aleksandar Vucic, wants an election this year.
"We need to act," the senior Socialist official told Reuters. "Vucic and his allies want to smear us and Dacic, and we cannot remain silent. Not this time. Whether the government collapses, that's for Vucic and Dacic to decide."
A senior SNS official declined to comment on the accusations of a smear campaign, but told Reuters:
"Early next week the SNS presidency will meet to decide future steps. Clearly, elections will be on the agenda. However, our key goal is to secure a date for EU accession talks, which we expect to get in March. Then we'll see."
Reports said the SNS leadership would meet on Monday.
Besides being defence minister, Vucic is also deputy prime minister in charge of security matters. He has been leading a government crackdown on organised crime and corruption, a condition of Serbia's bid to join the EU.
Vucic and Dacic have been at odds for weeks over whom to appoint to the helm of the Serbian police force, a powerful political lever since the rule of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
On Thursday, Serbia's state broadcaster reported the existence of 130 discs containing police surveillance material linking senior officials in Dacic's Interior Ministry to Radulovic and Radulovic's alleged associate, Darko Saric.
The Politika broadsheet carried a similar report on Saturday, citing police sources.
Both Radulovic and Saric are at large. The Politika report said they were suspected of involvement in the smuggling of two tonnes of cocaine from South America to Spain in 2009.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Kevin Liffey)