- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a Western-backed reformer, was assassinated from long range in a Belgrade street yesterday by gunmen believed linked to organized crime.
The government quickly announced a state of emergency and sealed off the airport, bus and train stations, and city limits as security forces searched for those responsible. A bodyguard was wounded in the shooting attack from a nearby building.
Cabinet ministers, speaking after an emergency session, blamed a criminal group called the Zemun clan, named after a Belgrade municipality. "The murder … represents an attempt by this criminal clan to cause chaos, lawlessness and fear in the country," the ministers said in a statement, according to Reuters news agency.
However, police were also considering other suspects.
Mr. Djindjic, 50, had been best known in the West for his role in toppling Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 and handing him over to the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
As prime minister of Serbia, one of the five political entities carved out of the former Yugoslavia, Mr. Djindjic had been trying to modernize his troubled country and usher it into modern Europe. Recently, he had undertaken a potentially dangerous challenge to powerful organized crime elements that dominate Serbian society.
Mr. Djindjic was ambushed at 12:25 p.m. in front of the main Serbian government building. He was struck in the back and stomach; a doctor at Belgrade Emergency Center, where he was taken, said it was the bullet in the back that killed him, and that he was dead on arrival although other reports say attempts were made to revive him. Doctors put the time of death at 1:30 p.m.
The shots were believed to have come from a sniper rifle positioned on the roof of a building across the street. Some sources said a blanket was found in the building and authorities speculated that the assassins may have spent the previous night lying in wait.
Staffers on the government building's third floor with offices facing the street said they heard no gunshots, leading to suspicions that a silencer was used. Some eyewitnesses said they had previously seen two persons with weapons in the vicinity. Police were reported to have three suspects in custody.
Word began filtering out to a disbelieving public within minutes of the shooting. Few dramatic expressions of grief for Mr. Djindjic were seen, but a melancholy verging on desperation hung over the crowds who had come out to enjoy a rare springlike day.
"This country will go straight down the tubes now," said Srdjan Todorovic, a popular young actor, as he rushed down the street in tears. On a main boulevard in the city center, a pensioner stood ramrod straight on the curb, a pin with the Serbian coat of arms on his lapel.
The shooting of the baby-faced, German-educated doctor of philosophy comes at a time of extremely low morale and limited confidence in government in the second year of transition to democracy and normalcy.
The period has been marked by high unemployment and conflict between Mr. Djindjic and former federal President Vojislav Kostunica. While Mr. Kostunica is closely aligned with conservative nationalist forces, Mr. Djindjic was generally viewed as the best hope for a technocratic solution to the nation's moribund economy.
Mr. Djindjic, the son of a military officer, became involved in politics as a student during the regime of Marshal Josip Broz Tito. He was a founder of the democratic opposition to Mr. Milosevic and the main strategist of the Oct. 5, 2000, uprising that ousted the dictator.
He had many enemies in a society plagued by political intrigue, and had recently declared war on organized crime, which plays a powerful role in the country.
But opponents frequently noted Mr. Djindjic's own connections with figures identified with organized crime. Three weeks ago, Mr. Djindjic escaped injury when a car driven by a man with mob ties swerved out of traffic and careened toward his motorcade. In a bizarre move, a judge released the driver, prompting Mr. Djindjic to call for an investigation of the judiciary.
"He who plays with fire gets burned," said Zoran Miljkovic, 40, a bus driver who had spent the day in traffic jams massive even by the city's unruly standards.
Police last night were searching for 20 suspects including Milorad Lukovic, nicknamed "Legija," who once headed the "Red Beret" special police units used by Mr. Milosevic for "dirty" jobs, reportedly including atrocities in Kosovo.
According to press reports, Mr. Lukovic was suspected of being behind the recent attempt on Mr. Djindjic's life several weeks ago. There were reports that the suspected mafia leader was about to be indicted by the Hague tribunal, and that members of the Red Berets were believed to be afraid that they would be sent to The Hague.
Mr. Djindjic had come under intense criticism from many in Serbia for his decision to cooperate unconditionally with the tribunal. He was despised by some for arranging the extradition of Mr. Milosevic to the tribunal in June 2001, and for urging more arrests of war-crimes suspects. After Mr. Milosevic was transferred to The Hague, Mr. Lukovic said he was opposed to the decision.
Another leading suspect is Dusan Spasojevic, a businessman connected with the Zemun clan, one of the most powerful organized crime clans in Serbia. Opposition leaders had long claimed that Mr. Djindjic had connections with Mr. Spasojevic and the Zemun mafia.
Also wanted was Dejan Milenkovic, nicknamed "Bugsy," who drove the car that hit Mr. Djinjic's motorcade in late February.
Officials of the frequently contentious ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition declared they would put aside differences and declare war on the mafia.
A three-day period of mourning was declared.

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