The Yugoslav army leadership was swept into the national debate today over who will govern postwar Yugoslavia, as a former army chief of staff who was fired by President Slobodan Milosevic charged that the military has been turned into a tool of an incompetent and dangerous regime.

Milosevic himself appeared later at army headquarters, surrounded by his top generals and their senior aides, in an event broadcast on national television. The Yugoslav leader praised the army's patriotism, courage and tenacity--and signaled to the nation that the top brass remains loyal to him and his government.

The war of words and symbols illustrates the heightened role the military and its commanders and troops may play in the political struggle being waged in this war-shattered nation.

In a magazine interview published today, retired Gen. Momcilo Perisic, the former chief of staff, called for replacement of Milosevic and his government by political means and said that he himself is "thinking about becoming politically active." The comment suggested Perisic might join the political opposition, perhaps even by starting his own party.

Perisic's charges came as senior army officers have begun speaking publicly in support of Milosevic and against opposition leaders who have been staging mass anti-government rallies--a development that has drawn howls of protest from opposition politicians, who insist that the army play no role in civilian affairs. The army, which traditionally has remained aloof from daily politics, is one of the more respected institutions in the country and is being watched closely to see which way it might tilt in the current opposition effort to push Milosevic aside.

In the interview with the weekly Belgrade magazine NIN, Perisic said that the army and special police units deployed in Kosovo for the "eradication of terrorism" used methods that gave NATO the justification to launch airstrikes against Yugoslavia. He did not specifically mention war crimes allegedly committed in Kosovo, where government forces battled secessionist ethnic Albanian guerrillas for nearly 18 months and turned hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians into refugees.

But in his first public comments since his dismissal last November, Perisic said the Milosevic government wanted the army to be "a blind executioner of sometimes imprudent and fatal decisions." He accused the government of using "usurpation, blackmail and fear" to penetrate the military and charged that "the cruel fate" that befell Yugoslavia was mostly the fault of the Milosevic government.

As commander of the army for five years until his dismissal, Perisic oversaw the first nine months of the Kosovo conflict, which began in February 1998 when army and police forces launched coordinated attacks against the guerrillas. He was part of a small group of senior officers who met with NATO officials in Belgrade last October during preliminary negotiations to end the Kosovo fighting.

Shortly after that meeting, Milosevic dismissed Perisic in a purge that included the president's longtime ally, Jovica Stanisic, chief of the Serbian state security service. No reason for Perisic's dismissal was given, although Belgrade media reported at the time that both men had questioned Milosevic's policies in Kosovo. Perisic issued a statement complaining that Milosevic was trying to rid the government of "leaders of high integrity who think for themselves."

In his appearance at army headquarters here today, Milosevic extolled the military and told television viewers that the "firm unity of the people and the army guarantees the independence and long stability of the country."

In recent days, Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic--commander of the Yugoslav Third Army and leader of the armed forces in Kosovo--criticized the political opposition in a speech to reservists as those who "malevolently even attacked our supreme commander, who did a lot to prevent the aggression, to stop the aggression and to save the nation as well as the army." Aggression is the preferred term of many here for the NATO bombing campaign.

The chief of staff who replaced Perisic, Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic, also has criticized the political opposition. "Those who are advocating violent means to remove the legitimate government, those who were not here during the NATO aggression, will not have the support of the people," he declared to an audience of businessmen Saturday.

He was referring to Zoran Djindic, leader of the Democratic Party, which has been sponsoring anti-Milosevic demonstrations around Serbia. Djindic left Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, during the bombing, saying he did so because he feared he would be assassinated or jailed. Djindic, an army reservist, has been summoned to appear before a military court in Belgrade next week to answer charges that he failed to report for lawful military service.

The current military saber-rattling comes as thousands of army reservists continue to blockade roads and stage marches in central and southern Serbia, demanding back pay and stipends for apartments and utility service.

Many of the reservists have seen only a portion of their pay from their service during the Kosovo war, and the government announced Wednesday that it will begin soon to send them the first of six monthly checks.

CAPTION: Retired general Momcilo Perisic says he may enlist in the political opposition to combat Milosevic.

CAPTION: Yugoslav army commander Dragoljub Ojdanic, right, has spoken strongly in support of Milosevic and against opposition figures seeking his ouster.