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Snipers assassinate Serbia's prime minister

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, chief organizer of the October 2000 democratic revolution that toppled Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, was shot and killed Wednesday by snipers as he approached the door of his government headquarters.

The government immediately declared a state of emergency amid fears the Balkan republic of 10-million could plunge into a violent power struggle. All political activity was suspended and rigid controls on the news media were reinstated.

The killing of Djindjic, (JIHN-jihch) leaves Serbia with neither a prime minister nor an elected president. It comes after 2{ years of democratic rule and more than a half-century of authoritarianism, under the Communists, then under Milosevic, a Communist-turned-Serbian nationalist.

Police officers and army troops began a massive hunt for the killers, setting up roadblocks around Belgrade, the capital, and halting all bus, rail and plane traffic out of the city. News media in Belgrade reported that two men were taken into custody.

Late in the day, the government said the killing was the work of a criminal gang whose leaders include Milorad Lukovic, the former head of an elite police paramilitary unit called the Red Berets. "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," the government said in a statement. It did not offer evidence to support that claim.

Djindjic was shot on the day that his Cabinet was to sign warrants for the arrests of Lukovic and other leaders of the gang believed to be behind this and other recent killings, according to a statement issued by the government.

Many said there was no obvious replacement for Djindjic, 50. "He was the person who held everything together _ cutting deals, twisting arms, buying other parties out," said Ljiljana Smajlovic, a leading Serbian political commentator.

Under the Constitution, acting President Natasa Micic must nominate a successor to be approved by the Serbian parliament. Micic took over last year after low voter turnout invalidated two successive presidential elections.

Djindjic and Vojislav Kostunica, his rival and collaborator in the movement that toppled Milosevic, dominated Serbian politics for the past two years. Kostunica, who succeeded Milosevic as president of Yugoslavia and stepped down earlier this month when the country was restructured into a looser federation called Serbia and Montenegro, remains a highly popular figure in Serbia.

The assassination bore the marks of a professional killing and a well-organized conspiracy.

Djindjic was struck in the abdomen and back by two bullets from high-powered rifles as he slowly left his car on crutches after suffering a soccer injury to his foot. Police said multiple snipers apparently fired from the third floor of an abandoned building across the street. Another high-powered bullet left a dent in Djindjic's car.

Djindjic narrowly survived an apparent assassination attempt last month when a truck swerved into his convoy of cars. He later said it was the work of organized crime.

As prime minister, Djindjic made powerful enemies, including ousted Communist and nationalist leaders, criminals and members of dissident factions in the secret police and army.

Djindjic was particularly detested by people close to the former post-Communist government for giving in to intense Western pressure and extraditing Milosevic and several of his close associates to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

There is a long tradition of political assassinations in Serbia, the biggest republic in what was a six-republic federation, Yugoslavia, before it disintegrated in bloody civil wars that extended through most of the 1990s.

Serbia's deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, described Djindjic's slaying as "a clear attempt by those who in the past have tried to stop Serbia's progress and democratization by assassinations to change the course of history and once again isolate Serbia."

President Stipe Mesic of neighboring Croatia, which broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, described the murder as "an act of madness" that would slow Serbia's progress .

Djindjic was born in 1952 into the family of a Yugoslav army officer in Bosanski Samac near the Bosnian border. He was raised and educated in Belgrade, and was married with a son and daughter.

Djindjic's trade of Milosevic for $1.2-billion in international economic aid appeared to have won respect from people desperate to improve a standard of living that ranks among the lowest in Europe.

Jovan Dimitrijevic, a retiree in his 70s, wept as he laid a single red rose at the site of the assassination. "This is the work of criminal minds, those who want to pull us back into Milosevic's darkness."

_ Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

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