Posted on Fri, Mar. 14, 2003  

In Serbia, authorities move to root out underworld group

Knight Ridder Newspapers

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro - Government bulldozers tore into the Zemun Clan's palatial compound Friday, destroying the surveillance cameras, satellite dishes, Italian tiles and bonsai trees owned by a leader of the gang blamed for the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

In attacking the shopping center and lavish home in Belgrade's run-down Zemun neighborhood, the government crushed the spoils of a cartel it holds responsible for a reign of robbery, kidnapping, drug and human trafficking and at least 50 murders.

Destroying the gang itself will prove more difficult. Yet for the first time, Serb's are hoping it might finally happen.

Serb officials have rounded up scores of suspects since Wednesday's sniper ambush and detained two men who ran the fearsome state security for former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

That is just a start. The government acknowledges that it has arrested mostly low-level mafia suspects. The three men believed to have killed Djindjic with high-velocity sniper rounds escaped, as have the leaders of the clan.

On Friday, the government said it believed the assassination was carried out by a mob tied to police and state security operatives from the Milosevic regime, which the pro-democracy Djindjic was instrumental in toppling. After the country's October, 2000, revolution,

Djindjic was slow in rooting out all the criminal elements - some of whom provided the muscle to arrest Milosevic and deliver him to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the Dutch capital, last year.

Now the hope in Serbia is that Djindjic, who was 50, will accomplish in death what he could not in life: marshal public will to support an assault on the country's criminal elite.

While he was praised for his reformer's vision and boundless energy, Djindjic's manner left many Serbs cold, and he made powerful enemies who opposed his efforts to force the country into 21st century Europe, which included cooperation with The Hague prosecutions.

"It seems people abroad could see him better than we could," Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac told B92 radio and television.

In death, though, Djindjic has been hailed as a true Serb hero. And as hundreds of Serbs waited in the cold Friday to leave candles, flowers and notes outside the government building where he was shot, a combined team of police, army and security services conducted a massive manhunt called Operation Whirlwind, targeting remnant's of Milosevic's brutal rule.

Serbs old enough to remember Josip Broz Tito, the dictator who held ethnically diverse Yugoslavia together until his death in 1980, and those too young for the student movement that helped topple Milosevic lined up in the cold for hours. Mira Culafic, a 55-year-old grandmother, came to sign Djindjic's memorial book with words she'd scrawled on a piece of paper: "Serbia today is not supposed to cry," she wrote. "Serbia is supposed to celebrate you."

"He was a great man - the only one with a vision," said a pensioner who brought several candles and kindled tier flames while dabbing her eyes. She said she was afraid to give her name.

No one underestimates the power or ruthlessness of the Zemun clan, which includes men who led the dirtiest operations in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo wars.

Journalist Milovan Brkic, 47, wrote an article in October 1996 about police death squads. Two men showed up at the office of his opposition newspaper the next day, flashing state security badges, he said.

They were Dejan "Bugsy" Milenkovic, since accused of trying to drive his truck into Djindjic's car last month, and Dusan "Siptar" Spasojevic, the Zemun overlord who owns the complex police bulldozed Friday.

Blindfolded, Brkic was driven to a car repair garage where he says about 20 men surrounded him, stripped him, stuck a plastic bag over his head and beat him with pipes, then dropped him in a tank of frigid water.

"I still cannot talk about it," he said. "I think it would have been better if they killed me."

He was saved by a phone call, he said, and heard someone screaming at them to free him. They dressed him in a paramilitary uniform and left him beaten and bloodied at his doorstep.

Jovan Dulovic, a writer for the magazine Vreme, hopes that Djindjic's death in broad daylight forces Serbia to rid itself of its mafia for good.

"Now it is in front of everyone. There is a political will that didn't exist before to solve everything. It is strong. For the first time, I believe that something can happen."