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Last Updated: Monday, 22 December, 2003, 10:57 GMT
Crime and politics meet in Serbia trial

By Gabriel Partos
BBC south east Europe analyst

Zoran Djindjic
Authorities claim Djindjic's murder was a coup attempt
The high-profile trial of the alleged killers of Serbian PM Zoran Djindjic has started less than a week before general elections designed to end the country's long political stalemate.

Among the accused is the man who is alleged to have pulled the trigger.

But the supposed mastermind behind the shooting in March remains a fugitive, and will be tried in absentia.

Serbia's reformist, pro-Western Prime Minister was shot dead on 12 March as he got out of his official car to get inside the government buildings in Belgrade.

Red Berets

Serbia's authorities immediately proclaimed a state of emergency. And among the thousands police questioned about organised crime-related activities, they arrested the alleged assassin, Zvezdan Jovanovic, a former assistant commander of the elite special police unit, the Red Berets.

Mr Jovanovic is one of 15 people accused of direct involvement in Mr Djindjic's murder.

More than 20 others are also standing trial for their alleged role in a broader conspiracy.

This involved one of Belgrade's main criminal gangs, the Zemun clan, and senior members of the security establishment, according to security officials.

They say the conspiracy dates back to the 1990s, when Slobodan Milosevic was in power.

Serbia's most wanted

The overlap between Serbia's criminal underworld and its security forces is one of Mr Milosevic's long-lasting legacies.

During the time of the wars in the former Yugoslavia the two worked together in dispatching paramilitary forces to the war zones, and in sanction-busting operations against the United Nations trade embargo.

One of the alleged lynchpins was Milorad Lukovic - also known as Legija - who was the Red Berets' commander during the second half of the 1990s.

Document check in central Belgrade
Thousands were questioned in a huge post-murder clampdown
Subsequently, Legija reportedly became a boss of the Zemun clan. The authorities say they have identified him as the mastermind behind the Djindjic assassination.

He remains Serbia's most wanted man; and he will be tried in absentia along with almost half the accused.

The post-Milosevic authorities have said Mr Djindjic's murder was part of a plot to overthrow the government.

The conspirators reportedly feared that further war crimes suspects would be transferred - like Mr Milosevic - to the tribunal in The Hague.

They also feared that the administration was also preparing a crackdown on organised crime.

Whether the claims of an attempted coup can be substantiated remains in doubt.

Since Mr Djindjic's killing the Belgrade authorities have certainly refrained from extraditing other war crimes suspects to The Hague - though the main reason for this has been the unpopularity of such a move in what has been a prolonged pre-election period.

As for conspirators' alleged concern over a crackdown on crime, far from preventing that through killing Mr Djindjic, they provoked a campaign without parallel.

Power struggle

During the state of emergency over 10,000 suspects were questioned. Many - including Mr Djindjic's alleged killers - are about to be tried.

The opening of the Djindjic murder trial came less than a week before the 28 December elections, called in the wake of the coalition government's collapse.

Mr Djindjic's successors in the Democratic Party may be hoping that the trial will boost the sympathy vote.

They missed an opportunity earlier this year, when their tough action against organised crime lifted the government's popularity ratings.

Now, following months of bickering and inaction, the Democratic Party and its allies are facing an uphill struggle to retain power.

The BBC's Matthew Price
"There are certainly enough conspiracy theories surrounding the murder"

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