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Serbia-Montenegro: Progress In Djindjic Investigation As Council Of Europe Membership Granted

The 12 March assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the subsequent arrest of some 2,000 suspects and revelations concerning other political murders, most notably the August 2000 abduction and murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, may finally be putting Serbia on the road toward political stability. Quite by coincidence, the post-Yugoslav loose common state of Serbia and Montenegro was admitted today to the Council of Europe.

Prague, 3 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer today welcomed Serbia and Montenegro as its 45th member state.

"Today is a great day and I feel proud and honored to be here. This is a new beginning for Serbia and Montenegro, but also for the Council of Europe. We now extend virtually throughout the whole continent."

In another symbolic move, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Belgrade last night, the first such high-level U.S. visit there since June 1991 when then-Secretary of State James Baker made a failed bid to persuade Serb, Croat, and Slovene leaders to preserve the old Yugoslav federation and not to go to war.

Powell praised the Serb leadership's commitment to reforming the economy, the police, and the military, to fight organized crime and cooperate with The Hague war crimes tribunal in the wake of the 12 March assassination of reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

"I am absolutely delighted with what I've heard about the commitment that they have made to reform."

For his part, Djindjic's successor, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic, assured Powell that "Serbia will be a reliable partner of the United States."

And Zivkovic told an international economics conference in Athens today: "Djindjic's assassination will not succeed in leading this system to collapse," adding that the murder was aimed at returning Serbia to the dark days of the Milosevic regime. He said: "A war has been declared on all organized crime groups and 2003 will be the year we defeat crime."

Nearly 12 years and six wars after Baker's 11th hour visit to Belgrade, Serbia remains politically volatile, though far less of a regional threat than it was under ex-President Slobodan Milosevic, who was ousted two and a half years ago.

The Serbian Interior Ministry says the investigation shows that Djindjic's killing "was part of a plot by self-styled patriotic forces, led by war criminals, war profiteers, patrons, and the inspirers of criminal policies from the ranks of the regime party of Slobodan Milosevic." It says these forces "in collaboration with criminal gangs, in particular the Zemun clan, (a drugs and people-trafficking outfit), killed political opponents, beat opposition supporters, and mistreated citizens in the name of Milosevic and [his wife Mirjana] Markovic and according to the needs of [Milosevic's] Socialist Party."

The Interior Ministry alleges that the "patriotic forces in the leadership" took advantage of the services provided by Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, until last year the commander of the disbanded paramilitary Special Operations Unit (JSO), or "Red Berets," as well as other members of that unit and the Zemun clan to liquidate all those who got in their way. "Legija" is one of the last suspects still at large.

Similarly, Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic describes those behind the killing as "fanatic disciples" of Milosevic in the army, police, security services, and the courts who believe it is possible to turn back the clock.

The Djindjic assassination, in the view of Serbian government leaders, was intended to create anarchy and destabilize the country. Although the assassins succeeded in killing Djindjic with two bullets fired from a sniper's rifle, the rest of their plan appears to have backfired.

The crackdown of the past three weeks has seen the detention of over 3,000 people, with 2,000 of them still in custody. The suspects range from gang leaders and former paramilitary commanders to the deputy state prosecutor, current members of the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA), and members of the Red Berets.

This week, police arrested former Yugoslav army chief of staff and former presidential candidate Nebojsa Pavkovic, reportedly on suspicion of abuse of office. Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac said helicopters may have been used in the murders of the former regime's opponents: "There are some indications that in carrying out crimes of murder, military helicopters were used. That's on a document which ordered it, so I think there's another heavy shock in store for our public, that is to say that the killers who got the order pushed [their victims] out of a helicopter. All the facts show everything about Slobodan Milosevic and his wife and that Milosevic himself ordered the use of the helicopters."

Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, says "unbelievable" things are emerging in the Djindjic investigation and suggests that Pavkovic knows plenty about the past decade of political violence.

"I think that in time, Mr. Pavkovic will be happy to explain this to us. As for what has happened since March 12, the crime of assassination the prime minister, I don't know but we'll see as the investigation proceeds, since day by day it brings us forward."

As Covic puts it, "we were not even aware of what country we lived in and what certain groups of people did in the territory of the former Yugoslavia and how many crimes they committed in the name of the citizens of Serbia and Montenegro."

The investigation has cleared up the mystery of the August 2000 abduction and murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, whom Milosevic replaced as president of Serbia in 1988 and who had been expected to run against Milosevic for president in September 2000. The investigation is expected to result in a speedy resolution of numerous other unsolved political murders of the past decade.

DOS lawmaker Bojan Pajtic told the Serbian parliament this week that Milosevic was the only person who would have derived a direct political benefit from eliminating Stambolic as a potential political opponent and so should be questioned.

"Our courts can request the Hague Tribunal to question Mr. Milosevic [about the Stambolic murder], and I am completely certain that the justice organs will do everything to reveal the truth about the murder of Mr. Stambolic. The legal organs similarly will want to question Mrs. Markovic."

Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, left Belgrade for Moscow on 23 February. She has denied any wrongdoing in an open letter released by her party, the Yugoslav United Left, in Belgrade. She denies ever having had any contacts with criminals or ever having been in conflict with the law and suggests that the allegations are in fact aimed at harming her husband in his trial at The Hague.

Djindjic had delayed a crackdown on organized crime and corruption in the police, judiciary, and military in large part because many of those targeted for arrest had helped him, even if only passively, in toppling Milosevic. Nevertheless, a failed attempt on Djindjic's life on 21 February may have persuaded Djindjic not to delay any longer.

Government ministers hint there is a link between the 21 February attempt on Djindjic's life and Markovic's departure for Moscow two days later and of the preannounced surrender the following day of Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj to the Hague Tribunal.

Speaker of parliament Dragoljub Micunovic today confirmed to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg that the state of emergency which had been due to be repealed as soon as the murderers had been brought to justice will be lifted by the end of this month. But first, Belgrade officials say, the criminal code must be amended to lengthen the maximum length of pretrial detention from 30 days to 60 days.