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Gang bosses elude hunt for killers of Serbian PM

Top criminal's looming indictment for war crimes may have sealed Djindjic's fate

John Hooper in Belgrade
Friday March 14, 2003
The Guardian

As the Serbian authorities were announcing yesterday that they had rounded up some 200 people in connection with the assassination of the prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, there was little sign of life at the green-roofed mansion on Silerova Street.

A cobbled lane running between one-storey cottages, interspersed by half-developed plots, Silerova Street lies at the heart of Zemun, the scruffy Belgrade district which is home to the organised crime syndicate blamed by the Serbian government for ordering the murder.

The house, set back from the lane, belongs to Dusan Spasojevic, a former police special operations commander who has been named by the government as one of the bosses of the "Zemun clan".

According to government officials, who earlier said that 40 arrests had been made, he and other leaders of the gang are at large.

His vast residence rears up, incongruously opulent, between the windowless back wall of a shopping mall and a plot littered with builder's rubble that was patrolled by a Rottweiler yesterday.

Neighbours said the building had at least three floors underground, which served, among other things, as the detention dungeons of an organisation which, in this part of Belgrade, operates as a state within a state.

The wife of a leader who split from the clan was among those who had been imprisoned there, neighbours claimed.

Surveillance cameras are attached to one side of the mansion. On the other, huge white screens have been erected on top of a wall that encircles the garden. They shut out the view, even from the top of the 11-storey communist-era tower blocks that stand nearby.

The Zemun clan has a fondness for nicknames that could have come from a 1930s gangster movie. Among members identified by the government are hoodlums known as "The Fool", "The Rat" and "The Cheat".

Dejan Milenkovic, who was arrested and released after an earlier suspected attack on the prime minister, is dubbed "Bugsy". And the man suspected of wielding overall command, Milorad Lukovic, another former commander of the "Red Berets" police special operations unit, or JSO, is known as "Legija" or Legionnaire.

The heavily muscled and extensively-tattooed Mr Lukovic once served in the French foreign legion.

According to the deputy prime minister, Zarko Korac, the Zemun clan is "not a normal criminal organisation ... it has its own people in the media, the police and judiciary".

It exemplifies, though it is by no means the sole case, the tangle of associations between politicians, gangsters, intelligence service officials and war criminals, both suspected and indicted, that is the dreadful legacy of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic's rule.

General Ljubodrag Stojadinovic, who was cashiered from Mr Milosevic's army and now writes a column on political and military affairs for the newspaper Politika, fears that these interacting elements could turn Serbia into Europe's Colombia.

Philosophy of death

"Their goal is to bring conservative forces back into power," he said. "That is not a realistic concept and they understand that. But they need a chaotic situation in which to survive. They are people who belong ideologically to the past and who survive on a philosophy of death."

He added: "I see Serbia in the future as a democratic country within a framework of western European values. But it will be a long road and [on Wednesday] we took several steps backwards."

Until last year, the Zemun clan's links extended to the heart of the Djindjic administration. That is no surprise; the clan is widely acknowledged to have played a leading role in putting the prime minister into office.

Milovan Brkic is a freelance journalist and spokesman for Serbia's independent police trade union. In 1996, two men called for him, identified themselves as intelligence officers and demanded that he accompany them for questioning. The day before he had published a controversial article on drug trafficking.

He was taken to a car repair workshop on the outskirts of Belgrade and tortured by a gang of 20 men, led by the suspected leader of the Zemun clan at the time.

"Such were the humiliations they inflicted on me, I still feel it would have been better if they had killed me", Mr Brkic said yesterday.

He added: "I saw almost all of them on [October 5, 2000, the day of the fall of the Milosevic dictatorship] around Mr Djindjic."

Whatever links existed between the late prime minister and the Zemun clan, it is clear that they had been strained to breaking point in recent months.

Last year, the government ordered a reorganisation that extracted the paramilitary Red Berets from the control of the intelligence service and put it under that of the interior ministry.

"This was the first significant event that caused panic in these groups", said Mr Djindjic's deputy, Zarko Korac.

Within the Zemun clan, moreover, a split was taking place. One faction was turning gradually towards legitimate business and its leader publicly denounced his former associates for being responsible for a string of politically related killings and other crimes.

The alleged boss of the other faction, Milorad Lukovic, appears to have opted for resistance rather than integration. Accused of a string of war crimes in the Kosovo conflict that could yet land him in the Hague, he may have had little choice, said Milovan Brkic.

"He realised that Djindjic would have to sacrifice him sooner or later."

There are indications that, by this week, it had become sooner. A newspaper which is regarded as close to the nationalist camp reported that an indictment was being drawn up at the war crimes tribunal that called for Mr Lukovic's detention.

Another newspaper, seen as leaning towards - and feeding off - sources close to Mr Lukovic, carried an even more remarkable exclusive.

"Djindjic target of sniper," it proclaimed on its front page.

But the story appeared, not in yesterday's edition, but in Wednesday's.

It was published several hours before the Serbian prime minister was fatally wounded by two shots from a sniper's high-velocity rifle.

Special reports
Yugoslavia war crimes

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