Dozens held in Djindjic killing

Two in custody believed to have participated in Balkan massacres

March 14, 2003|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro - A day after Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was gunned down, the government announced yesterday that it had arrested or detained 58 people in connection with the assassination, including two men believed to have been involved in some of the worst atrocities of the Balkan civil wars.

Acting Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic said a successor to Djindjic would be nominated Sunday.

After a day of intensive manhunts under a government-declared state of emergency, police said 56 people had been detained on suspicion of conspiring in Wednesday's sharpshooter ambush on Djindjic, who was shot as he walked into his office building.

Many of those arrested belonged to an organized crime ring, the Zemun clan, which Djindjic had planned to target in a crackdown, authorities said. But the gunmen and the gang's key leaders remained at large.

More significant was the revelation last night that two other men - Franko Simatovic and Jovica Stanisic - had also been detained, strengthening suggestions that Djindjic's killing was not solely linked to the crime ring crackdown but also wrapped up in this country's bloody political past.

Stanisic was former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's secret-service chief, and Simatovic founded the notorious special operations unit known as the Red Berets.

Some observers say Djindjic was killed partly because former members of Serbia's nationalist paramilitary groups feared that he would turn them over to the war crimes tribunal.

The Red Berets are believed to have committed massacres of Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Albanian Kosovars on orders from the very top as part of a state-sanctioned campaign of "ethnic cleansing." Many former Red Berets are now members of the Zemun clan, and some are rumored to be under sealed indictment by The Hague.

Covic acknowledged that the "constant pressure" on Belgrade to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal could have been a factor in Djindjic's killing.

It was not immediately clear whether Simatovic and Stanisic would remain in custody - a potentially enormous victory for human-rights campaigners - or be released.

Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic vowed that anyone who had a hand in Djindjic's assassination would be arrested. The police were ready to "liquidate anyone who offers resistance," he warned.

Armed guards and chilly wind did not deter hundreds of residents who came to pay respects to their fallen prime minister, a man many felt stood a chance of restoring some normality and bringing reform to their strife-torn country.

"He was trying to lead Serbs into Europe, into true democracy," Ljubica Danicic, 76, said as mourners laid flowers and lighted candles near the ambush site. A block-long queue of people waited to sign a memory book inside the central government building.

Although criticized by some as a sometimes Machiavellian politician who swayed with the wind, Djindjic was "a son of Serbia," Danicic said, "a democrat in heart and soul."

His government advocated economic and political reforms to push Serbia-Montenegro - a loose confederation of the members of the former Yugoslavia - out of the shadow of its communist and war-ravaged past.

But those reforms put him at odds with Belgrade's underworld. As former paramilitary members whom Milosevic rewarded with their own turf for services rendered, many felt threatened by the intense pressure Djindjic had come under to hand over war-crimes suspects.

Simatovic's name has come up often during Milosevic's trial at The Hague, leading some to believe that he is one of the court's wanted men.

On Sunday, the central committee of Djindjic's party will convene to nominate a new prime minister, probably Zoran Zivkovic, a former interior minister. But whether Zivkovic will be able to keep together the 17-party coalition that Djindjic presided over by force of personality remains to be seen.

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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