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Sunday, 11 June, 2000, 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
Arkan 'victim of gang warfare'
Arkan was gunned down earlier this year
Arkan was gunned down earlier this year
By John Simpson in Belgrade

Although the hotel where I am staying is a good one, and the standard of service and the food are the best in Belgrade, there is scarcely anyone staying here.

A gloom has settled over the whole place. Sometimes the bar, which used to be one of the places to be seen, is entirely empty - except for a waiter discreetly checking his watch.

The fact is, this is the hotel where the warlord Arkan was murdered on 15 January. If you look around - discreetly, because of course the hotel staff are still embarrassed about it all - you can see the signs: a bullet-hole in the wall behind the reception desk, a smear of blood on a leather chair, now hidden away at the back of the lobby.

What happened that night was that Arkan was lounging in the leather chairs in the lobby outside the restaurant, talking to a senior policeman. One of his bodyguards was standing by.

An off-duty policeman walked in. No-one stopped him, because this hotel is a place where top policemen tend to hang out.

He walked over to Arkan, pulled out a gun, and within a second or two, Arkan, the bodyguard and the senior policeman he was talking to were dead.

Clear sign

Another bodyguard fired a shot and hit the killer in the stomach. But he and his associates got away.

In most countries, directly you know that a murder has been committed by an off-duty policeman, it is a pretty clear sign that the government is having a clear-out of its enemies.

It is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that the government of Slobodan Milosevic might do the same thing.

But even his bitterest enemies here do not think so, including an independent journalist friend of mine who took his liberty if not his life in his hands the other day and told me openly in a television interview: ¿This is a criminal regime.¿

There has been a wave of killings since Arkan's death - 14 so far, half of them gangsters, all known by their nicknames. The list is an increasingly long one: Skole, Chanda, Dugi, Trlaja, Bosanac, Manda - and of course Arkan himself.

Lighter sentence

But it is not just gangsters who are dying, it is top politicians as well. So far almost all of them have been allies of President Milosevic - the defence minister, the head of the national airline, and the political boss of the city of Novy Sad.

Before I got here, I was sure I knew what it was all about. Arkan, I assumed, must have been negotiating with the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, trying to get himself a lighter sentence in exchange for revealing what President Milosevic knew about the murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing which Arkan himself unleashed in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.

And therefore, I thought, government agents had murdered him - which had led his dedicated followers to kill people close to President Milosevic in revenge.

Well, like all neat theories, it broke down as soon as I got here and started talking to people.

Not even President Milosevic's strongest opponents here think that is what happened. For one thing, they say, Arkan's crimes were so great he could not have got himself a lighter sentence.

Rough characters

Instead, they think a murkier and more involved process - a much more Balkan process in other words - is going on. Serbia is not one of those Latin American dictatorships where government death squads used to patrol the streets. Instead, it is bandit country - and the bandits are heavily involved in business.

I came to know Arkan quite well during the four months I spent here during and after the Nato bombing campaign.

He hung out in my hotel and used to hold court with his cronies. Sometimes, if I could not avoid him, he would introduce me to them - big, rough characters in expensive suits which never quite fitted.

Like Arkan, they tended to be involved in the kind of newly-privatised industries which were closely linked to the government.

Somehow - this is my latest theory, but it is better based than the previous one - Arkan must have fallen out with someone over a deal, and that someone hired a gang of off-duty policemen to kill him: not a difficult thing to do in a country where the economy is collapsing.

Some of the killings which followed were linked to this, others were merely part of the general atmosphere of crookedness and violence which permeates things here.

It is not a tidy explanation, I know, but it seems to me to fit better. And every time I look at the bullet-hole behind the reception desk, or the dark-brown streak on the armchair, I think to myself: you are in bandit country and do not forget it - because Arkan did.

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