- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2003

BELGRADE, Serbia - Montenegro, March 12 (UPI) — Serbians gathered at Belgrade's government center Wednesday night to lay flowers and light candles at the site where Serbia's prime minister was assassinated just after noon as he walked from his car to his office.

Zoran Djindjic, 50, was struck by bullets fired from a high-powered rifle perched in a nearby government building and died during surgery at Belgrade's Emergency Hospital, official sources said.

The prime minister was perhaps best known for his role in the arrest and extradition of Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Djindjic has also been trying to crack down on organized crime in Serbia. He leaves behind a wife and two children.

News reports suggested police had made arrests in the shooting but there has been no official confirmation of who is responsible or why Djindjic was shot.

Deputy Prime Minister Nevojsa Covic announced Djindjic's death at an emergency government meeting. After the declaration ministers observed a minute of silence in tribute to Djindjic.

Serbia's acting president, Natasa Micic, called a state of emergency, adding, "The murder of Dr. Djindjic represents an attack on the constitutional order and the greatest crime against the stability and security of our state."

The supreme military council of the new state community of Serbia and Montenegro scheduled a meeting for late Wednesday to discuss Djindjic's death and its implications. The council includes state President Svetozar Marovic, elected last Friday from Montenegro's ruling Democratic Party of Socialists; and the acting presidents of Serbia and Montenegro, Natasa Micic and Filip Vujanovic.

Police armed with automatic rifles and army troops were out in strength in Belgrade, stopping and checking cars, especially the more-expensive vehicles. All bridges across Belgrade's two rivers, the Danube and Sava, were blocked. Belgrade airport was closed.

The President of the Serbian constitutional court, Slobodan Vucetic, said the state of emergency meant transferring police to army command and suspending certain civil liberties such as protest demonstrations and industrial strikes. He also said the state may introduce control of written, telephone and similar communications of all suspected persons as well as a ban on spreading any news by way of media deemed as "overthrowing the constitutional order."

Sources close to Djindjic said he had been about to change his police security detail because he no longer trusted it.

An apparent attempt on Djindjic's life was made last month while he was riding in a motorcade on the motorway from Belgrade to Surcin airport. A truck swerved into his lane of traffic but missed Djindjic's car. Djindjic was slightly injured in the incident and was seen walking with the help of on crutches.

The driver of the truck was caught by police soon afterward and turned over to a court with minor charges. After questioning him, the court's judge released the man because of insufficient evidence that an assassination attempt had transpired instead of a simple accident. The driver, who was said to belong to a criminal gang in Belgrade, has disappeared and police issued a warrant for his arrest.

Many officials and the public at large have become increasingly irritated by the government's failure to remove allies of Milosevic, president during Yugoslavia's violent break-up in the 1990s, from the police ranks and the judiciary. Milosevic was overthrown in October 2000 when the democratic reform opposition organized a bloodless coup.

Djindjic, leader of the Democratic Party and the ruling multi-party coalition DOS, was a reformist who became leader of Serbia's first non-communist government in January 2001. He helped orchestrate demonstrations that led to Milosevic's extradition on April 1, 2001, to the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia.

Another former DOS leader and ex-Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a long-time rival of Djindjic, described the assassination as a "horrible" event.

"The fact that political violence is happening, not for the first time, is a terrible warning about how little headway we have made on the path of real democratization of our society," the British Broadcasting Co. translated Kostunica as saying.

He and Djindjic had their differences, he continued, "but the only important thing for me at the moment is that I condemn in the strongest possible terms any kind of terrorism, violence or the use of force in the political and other conflicts.

"I am afraid that this is unfortunately another cruel warning that we must face up to the truth and see to what extent crime has infiltrated all aspects of our society," he said.

Serbia was the dominant body within the Yugoslav republic, the remnants of the Soviet satellite Yugoslavia after its fragmentation into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. The Yugoslav republic recreated itself last month as Serbia-Montenegro.

At Democratic Party headquarters, Djindjic's deputy Zoran Zivkovic said Wednesday evening he expected law enforcement agents to track down the killers within a matter of hours. If they showed themselves unable to catch the killers and their paymasters, the former federal police minister added, the party would consider them accomplices in the murder.

International law expert Vojin Dimitrijevic told Belgrade's B92 TV that Djindjic was Serbia's John F. Kennedy "who was killed for the same reasons."

Djindjic's killing, the first of a sitting European leader since Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot and killed in 1986, sent shockwaves throughout Europe and called into question the stability of the fledgling democracy.

In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush expressed "his condolences to the people of Serbia," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

"Prime Minister Djindjic will be remembered for his role in brining democracy to Serbia, and for his role in brining Slobodan Milosevic to justice," Fleischer said.

Expressing his dismay at the murder, European Commission President Romano Prodi said Belgrade was "still under attack from violent anti-democratic and anti-liberal forces," but he added that the prime minister's death would "not affect our resolve to support Serbia in its efforts to join the rest of the European family."

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was "deeply shocked" by the attack against the married father of two, who the Spaniard described as a "personal friend and a friend of Europe."

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(UPI Chief European Correspondent Gareth Harding in Brussels and Chris H. Sieroty in Washington contributed to this report.)

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