MORE ON THE ASSASSINATION- COMMUNIST LINKED MAFIA GROUP BLAMED:
Serbia Blames Crime Group for Djindjic Killing
Wed Mar 12, 6:03 PM ET Add World - Reuters to My Yahoo!
By Julijana Mojsilovic and Fredrik Dahl
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia said a Belgrade-based criminal group was behind the assassination on Wednesday of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who fought to transform his country from pariah nation to pro-Western democracy.
Djindjic, 50, a key figure in ousting Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic (news - web sites) and the man who sent him to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague (news - web sites), was gunned down outside Belgrade's main government building.
The government declared a state of emergency -- under which the army takes over police functions -- after the killing of Djindjic, who had pledged to stamp out the corruption and organized crime that flourished in the Balkan region during Milosevic's turbulent rule in the 1990s.
Western leaders, who have deployed thousands of NATO (news - web sites) peacekeeping troops across the former Yugoslavia since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, expressed shock and accused extremists of trying to return the region to the chaos and instability of the Milosevic era.
Blaming a criminal group called the Zemun, named after a Belgrade municipality, the government said after an urgent session: "The murder...represents an attempt by this criminal clan to cause chaos, lawlessness and fear in the country."
A government statement listed some 20 alleged leaders of the group, including a former head of a special police unit known as the "Red Berets" that fought in the Balkan wars of the 1990s -- Milorad Lukovic.
Another was named as Dejan Milenkovic, accused by police of trying to kill Djindjic last month with a truck that swerved toward the prime minister's convoy of cars. Djindjic blamed organized crime for the incident.
No official mention was made of arrests, although local media said two or three people had been held. State television carried pictures of the alleged Zemun leaders and police wearing flak jackets stopped and searched cars in Belgrade streets. All flights from Belgrade airport were suspended.
"ACT OF MADNESS"
The White House led tributes to Djindjic, the first European government leader to be assassinated since Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.
"Djindjic will be remembered for his role in bringing democracy to Serbia and for his role in bringing Slobodan Milosevic to justice," said spokesman Ari Fleischer (news - web sites).
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said: "This is the desperate action by violent extremists who want to return to Milosevic authoritarianism."
Djindjic, who took office in February 2001 after elections, had sought to reshape Serbia from a nation accused of warmongering and ethnic cleansing into a country accepted once again by the international community.
"The prime minister died from his wounds at 1330 (7:30 a.m. EST) at Belgrade emergency center," said Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic. Djindjic was shot in the chest and stomach.
Hundreds of Serbians laid flowers and lit candles at the scene of the killing, and flags flew at half-mast.
Under a state of emergency, border controls are strengthened and public protests or strikes can be banned.
Djindjic is the most senior politician to be killed in a series of murders of public figures in former Yugoslavia in the past three years. Revenge killings are rife in the region.
World leaders joined in praising Djindjic's efforts to bring the Balkan state back into the international fold.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (news - web sites) deplored "this act of political violence marring the process of democratic normalization in Serbia."
President Stjepan Mesic of Croatia, which fought Yugoslav troops in its struggle for independence, described the assassination as "an act of madness." Djindjic, married with two children, was a pragmatic modernizer dedicated to free-market reforms who came to power in the wake of the Kosovo war in 1999.
His premiership had to contend with the breakaway ambitions of ethnic Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo and negotiate the dissolution of Yugoslavia into a loose union between Serbia and the tiny coastal republic of Montenegro.
He also feuded with Milosevic's successor as Yugoslav president, the more cautious Vojislav Kostunica (news - web sites), behind the scenes over the pace of reform, and the 18-party coalition they co-led split after Kostunica's party left.
News of Djindjic's death shocked supporters who had taken to the streets with him in anti-Milosevic protests.
"Is he really dead? God forbid! Whatever happened to this country? Can we feel safe?," said pensioner Ljiljana, 65.
"The same murders are happening as during Milosevic's time," said Ana, a medical student.
Milosevic is now on trial in The Hague for genocide and crimes against humanity during the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s.
Jailed as a dissident student in the 1970s, frustrated as a popular protest leader in the 1990s, Djindjic rebounded in a street uprising in 2000 to become leader-in-waiting of a new democratic Serbia.
A fitness enthusiast, Djindjic was born in Bosanski Samac, in Bosnia, the son of a Yugoslav People's Army officer.
¶ 7:21 PM