Serbian Premier Is Slain

Special to The Times

Serbia's prime minister, the architect of the revolt that toppled Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, was assassinated Wednesday by snipers who ambushed him as he was walking from his car to government headquarters.

Zoran Djindjic, 50, died in a Belgrade hospital about an hour after being shot in the abdomen and back, said Nebojsa Covic, a deputy prime minister.

Djindjic was widely viewed as a reformer and ordered Milosevic's extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in June 2001. His death sparked widespread fears that the pace of reforms, already faltering in Serbia, will slow further and that cooperation with the tribunal will be curtailed.

The Serbian government declared a state of emergency Wednesday evening. Police set up checkpoints, and special forces were deployed throughout Belgrade.

At least two suspects were arrested, according to witnesses.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, the government pointed the finger at an organized crime group known as the Zemun gang, which is based in the Belgrade suburb of the same name.

"The assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic represents an attempt by this group to stop the fight against organized crime that just started and for them to avoid their own arrest.... This criminal clan tried to create chaos, lawlessness and fear in the country," the statement read.

Djindjic had recently appointed a special prosecutor to fight organized crime. During the Milosevic years, paramilitary figures close to the Yugoslav strongman were rewarded with a share of organized criminal activity.

A number of these figures fear Djindjic's compliance with Western demands to send war crimes suspects to The Hague and his pledge to crack down on organized crime. The fury may well have been sharper because some of the former paramilitary leaders were, at one time, Djindjic allies who helped in his rise to power.

Members of Djindjic's party also say that figures close to fugitive war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic are suspected of being involved. Belgrade officials quietly cooperated in an effort to clamp down on the business dealings of two Bosnian Serbs suspected of bankrolling the Bosnian Serb leader, who has eluded capture for seven years.

Assassins had reportedly tried to kill Djindjic in recent days. On Feb. 21, a truck tried to cut off his car, and Djindjic told friends later that he believed that the truck intended to halt his convoy and that a car with the assassins then would have driven up to kill him. His driver, however, avoided the truck.

Since then, he had known he was a marked man, said a friend, who asked not to be named.

Djindjic has no clear successor, but Covic, the deputy prime minister, viewed as a tough politician with long administrative experience, looked likely to become the government's public face in the coming days.

The news of Djindjic's killing spread quickly through Belgrade, which is both the Serbian and the country's capital. The phone networks briefly collapsed as residents called one another with the news. People were silent as they walked through busy streets.

Although Djindjic was never popular, many Serbs viewed his pragmatic, pro-Western leadership style as the republic's best hope for securing normality and a better future. His violent death revived the feeling of precariousness and uncertainty that dominated the Milosevic era.

Within a few hours, people began to lay bouquets of flowers, including roses and chrysanthemums, on the pavement in front of the government building's main entrance, and by nightfall Belgraders had lighted dozens of candles in mourning.

European leaders urged Serbia not to hesitate on the path of reform. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the killing "is a loss to all those, from whatever political party, who have made strenuous efforts to deliver a better future for Serbia."

President Bush condemned the killing and praised Djindjic "for his strong leadership during Serbia's successful struggle to end the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic."

The assassins positioned themselves on the top floor of a house about 100 yards from the main government complex where Djindjic worked. Aiming Yugoslav-made rifles, they waited until Djindjic drove up in his car and opened fire as he walked -- on crutches because of a soccer injury -- into the side entrance of the building.

Djindjic was at the height of a colorful career, a rise made possible by an intuitive sense of how to exploit the right opportunity at the right time.

Born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the son of an army officer, he excelled in school and moved into politics as a student, agitating against the Communists and getting jailed in the process.

He completed his doctorate in philosophy in Germany at Heidelberg University and worked at a scholarly institute as well as dabbling in business.

But politics was his true vocation, a passion encouraged by one of his mentors, the German philosopher Juergen Habermas, who urged his proteges not just to think but to act.

In a 1997 interview with The Times during a period when he was a beleaguered mayor of Belgrade struggling to marshal opposition to Milosevic, Djindjic made it clear that he disdained those who refused to take risks.

"In Serbia, a person who works for something instead of just talking is an obstacle," he said. "This disturbs the rules of the game. The rule of the game is that one should just talk, and not do anything."

Although his supporters revere him as the man who masterminded the ouster of Milosevic, he had some stumbles.

In 1999, to avoid North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing over Serbian repression in Kosovo province, Djindjic fled to Montenegro, leaving a sense of betrayal among many of his followers.

More upsetting to supporters and enemies alike were his ties to organized crime. He had friends and connections in the Yugoslav underworld and seemed to keep just enough distance to avoid outright charges of corruption.

Though not widely liked -- it was said he could never have won a popular election -- Djindjic was generally respected by friends and rivals, who were swayed by his charm and his political skill.

In some ways, his willingness to take risks may have been his greatest strength and his greatest vulnerability.

Djindjic was fond of saying, "Morals are for those who go to the monastery."

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Special correspondent Cirjakovic reported from Belgrade and Times staff writer Rubin from Amman, Jordan. Times staff writer Henry Chu in Belgrade contributed to this report.

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