Thu Mar 13, 2003 | Updated at 05:39 PM
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Mar. 13, 2003. 01:00 AM
Milosevic henchman sought over slaying of Serbian leader


BELGRADE—An already numb, beaten-down Serbian populace reacted with weary disgust at the news yesterday that Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a Western-backed reformer, had been assassinated.

The government announced a nationwide state of emergency and the airport, bus and train stations and city limits were sealed as the search for conspirators continued today.

Police reportedly have two suspects in custody.

One of the key suspects being sought is Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, who once headed the special police unit — known as Red Berets — used by former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic for "dirty" jobs.

Another leading suspect is Dusan Spasojevic, a controversial businessman connected with one of the most powerful organized crime clans that dominate Serbian society.

Djindjic, 50, was publicly credited with toppling Milosevic from power in 2000 and handing him over to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

As prime minister of Serbia — one of the six political entities carved out of the former Yugoslavia — Djindjic had been attempting to modernize his troubled country and usher it into modern Europe.

Djindjic was ambushed at 12:25 p.m. in front of the main Serbian government building. He was shot in the back and stomach. A doctor at Belgrade Emergency Centresaid he was dead on arrival at the hospital.

The shots were believed to have come from a sniper positioned on the roof of a building across the street. Djindjic was shot as he was leaving his car. Sources said a blanket was found in the building and authorities speculated the assassins spent Tuesday night lying in wait.

Word began filtering out to a disbelieving public within minutes of the shooting. Few dramatic expressions of grief for Djindjic were seen, but a heavy melancholy hung over crowds who had come out to enjoy a rare spring-like 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.

A crowd gathered at the murder site and several hundred supporters of Djindjic's Democratic Party carried flowers and lit candles.

Zorica, a 30-year-old schoolteacher, with tears in her eyes, declared: "This was the best man we had."

A three-day period of mourning was declared. It was the first assassination of a European head of government since Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down in Stockholm in 1986.

Foreign nationals throughout the city expressed nervousness and concern that the situation might spiral into one of greater instability, as factions within the military, police and government jockey for advantage.

The shooting of the baby-faced philosophy Ph.D., who had studied in Germany, comes at a time of low morale and limited confidence in government in its second year of transition to democracy. The period has been marked by high unemployment and conflict between Djindjic and former federal president Vojislav Kostunica.

While Kostunica is closely aligned with conservative nationalist forces, Djindjic was generally viewed as the best hope for a technocratic solution to the nation's moribund economy. Kostunica stepped down after Yugoslavia was abolished last month and replaced by a new state renamed Serbia and Montenegro.

Djindjic, the son of a military officer, became involved in politics as a student during the regime of Josip Broz Tito, and was one of the founders of the democratic opposition to Milosevic and main strategist of the Oct. 5, 2000, uprising that ousted him.

He had many enemies in a society plagued by political intrigue, and had recently declared war on organized crime.

Three weeks ago, Djindjic escaped injury when a car driven by a man with mob ties swerved out of traffic and careered toward his motorcade. In a bizarre move, a judge released the driver, prompting Djindjic to call for an investigation of the judiciary.

"He who plays with fire gets burned," said Zoran Miljkovic, 40, a bus driver.

Last night, about 50 police jeeps were seen headed in the direction of Surcin, home to a powerful mob faction. Opposition leaders have long claimed Djindjic had connections with shady businessman Spasojevic and the Zemun Mafia.

Police were searching for 20 suspects, key among them Lukovic, whose Red Berets are widely believed to have committed atrocities in Kosovo.

According to Djindjic, the night before the Oct. 5, 2000, revolution he arranged with Lukovic that the Red Berets would not oppose the uprising.

Also wanted is Dejan "Bugsy" Milenkovic, who drove the car that hit Djindjic's motorcade in late February.

In the last two years, critics have repeatedly warned of the danger posed by police, army and judicial officials who had served under Milosevic yet continued to play high-level roles in present-day Serbia.

"We're at a crucial point — in the next couple of days, if the remaining security forces in the army cannot get rid of this criminal mafia complex created by Milosevic, then we are in big trouble," said Vojin Dimitrijevic, director of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights and former international law professor.

"Unfortunately, the winning coalition against Milosevic was not resolute enough to get rid of them," he said. "After a time of hibernation, they reappeared."

Many of these criminals, who run the narcotics, arms and human trafficking trade, also committed war crimes in Bosnia and political murders under Milosevic, and are allies of those opposing The Hague tribunal.

"They saw Djindjic as the ablest politician who would do something" to turn them in, said Dimitrijevic. "They were not worried about Kostunica, who was a legalist who gave them every opportunity to escape justice.

"I don't trust the remaining security services, but I think the citizens of Serbia, by opposing the mafia, can prevent them from governing the country."

Under the constitution, acting President Natasa Micic must nominate a successor to be approved by the Serbian parliament. Within hours of the shooting, officials of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition, declared that they would put aside differences and declare war on the mafia.

Djindjic was married with a son and daughter.

Russ Baker is an investigative reporter who has written extensively on the former Yugoslavia.

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