BELGRADE A close aide to Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic accused Dacic's SNS coalition partners on Saturday of staging a smear campaign after media reports linked Dacic to an alleged drug trafficker.
The scandal, drip-fed to media by unnamed 'police sources', fuelled speculation that Dacic's SNS coalition partner, riding high in opinion polls, is looking to leave the government and force an early election.
Dacic, who is also interior minister, said he met suspected drug boss Rodoljub Radulovic, known as Misha Banana, in 2008 but was unaware at the time of his alleged involvement in smuggling.
Radulovic has since been accused of trafficking two tonnes of cocaine from South America to Spain in 2009 with alleged associate Darko Saric. Both men are at large.
Dacic, who was interior minister in a previous coalition government in 2008, lashed out at the police for not informing him of their suspicions.
"Who was playing with my security and integrity?" he asked.
"Many people I have met have ended up behind bars. Maybe people I meet now will also end up in jail."
Dacic did not say who might be behind the leaks.
But he distanced himself from remarks made to Reuters earlier in the day by a close aide, who pinned the blame firmly on the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) led by Defence Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
"Vucic and his allies want to smear us and Dacic, and we cannot remain silent," said the aide, a senior member of Dacic's Socialist Party.
"Not this time. Whether the government collapses, that's for Vucic and Dacic to decide," the official said, on condition of anonymity.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone, Dacic said he and Vucic were working "in complete accord" and he rejected any claim of SNS involvement.
"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," he said.
"We believe the SNS is a fully credible partner and we want to stress that there is unity within the government."
ELECTION "ON THE AGENDA"
The government is only six months old, but a crackdown on organised crime and graft led by Vucic has seen a surge in support for SNS in opinion polls.
The government now hopes to clinch accession talks with the EU within months, in what would be a major milestone for the Balkan country more than 12 years since it emerged from a decade of war and isolation under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
A senior SNS official said the party leadership would meet on Monday to decide future steps.
"Clearly, elections will be on the agenda," the official told Reuters. "However, our key goal is to secure a date for EU accession talks, which we expect to get in March. Then we'll see."
The official declined to comment on accusations of a smear campaign.
The leaks started several days ago, when 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 Saric.
The Politika broadsheet carried a similar report on Saturday. But the daily Informer and respected broadcaster B92 went a step further in naming Dacic, citing police reports that Dacic had met twice with Radulovic in late 2008.
Vucic and Dacic have been at odds for weeks over who to appoint to the helm of the Serbian police force, a powerful political lever since Milosevic's ouster in 2000.
Analysts say the SNS stand to benefit most from an early election, but need a good reason to bring down the government.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Stephen Powell)