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Serb criminals flourish since wars' end

Killing their way through the former Yugoslavia, gangs under the control of Slobodan Milosevic symbolized the ferocity of the Balkan wars. Now, more than a decade later, they are suspected of organizing the assassination of Serbia's prime minister.

After Milosevic was ousted in October 2000, many hoped that Serbia's new pro-Western government would uproot the gangs and destroy them. Instead, criminal enterprises are stronger than ever and although the former Yugoslav president is on trial for war crimes, many Serbs fear he is still running the show from his U.N. cell in the Netherlands.

On Thursday, more than 70 underworld figures were arrested in connection with the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, including two of Milosevic's former senior secret service chiefs, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic.

Djindjic, 50, was shot by two sniper bullets in Belgrade as he stepped out of his armored car Wednesday _ the same day the government planned to issue warrants for the arrests of several top underworld figures, including Milorad Lukovic, a former paramilitary leader now accused of running a heroin smuggling ring. A main suspect in the assassination, he remains at large.

"This terrorist act is in fact an attempted coup and an open call for war by the Serbian underworld against the republic's democratic government," said Nebojsa Medojevic, a political analyst from neighboring Montenegro.

Underlining the seriousness of the threat posed by Lukovic's so-called Zemun Clan _ a band of 200 mobsters named after a Belgrade suburb _ the government imposed a state of emergency, curtailing some civil liberties and increasing the army's combat readiness.

"This network has everything: They have the assassins, the sources for the right information and the financial resources to carry out this awful crime," Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac said.

Many in Serbia believe Djindjic may have made a deadly alliance with Lukovic and his gang in his drive to unseat Milosevic.

Djindjic led the popular revolt that toppled Milosevic. At the time, he admitted luring Lukovic and other key mob figures into turning their backs on Milosevic.

Lukovic's crack paramilitary troops, known as the Unit for Special Operations, had spread fear among non-Serbs during campaigns in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosoin the 1990s.

But Lukovic sided with Djindjic during the 2000 uprising, and his forces did not intervene against demonstrators despite orders by Milosevic.

Djindjic later turned against Lukovic and other gangsters to declare war on the rampant smuggling of contraband goods, cigarettes, drugs and women.

Unwilling to accept the possibility of arrest, Lukovic last month publicly threatened Djindjic and his government.

In an open letter to the media, Lukovic accused Djindjic's government of being "dangerously unpatriotic" and warned the prime minister his days were numbered.

Lawyer Srdja Popovic said Djindjic's assassination was a collaboration "of the nationalists, the mafia and the former regime."

Lukovic's name has frequently come up at Milosevic's war crimes trial. U.N. prosecutors, trying to prove that Milosevic exercised direct command over Lukovic and his unit, have shown footage of the former president visiting the paramilitaries and shaking hands with Lukovic in 1996.

Milosevic's security services established close ties with warlords, underworld figures and war profiteers who were used as proxies to conduct and finance paramilitary operations.

Later, entire militia units _ including Lukovic's _ comprising criminals were inducted into the police force, turning Serbian security into the most violent and corrupt pillar of Milosevic's regime.

After his ouster, many top commanders closely linked with organized crime remained in power despite efforts by Djindjic and others to purge them. They forged tactical alliances with nationalist parties, which offered them protection in return for their loyalty.

"Milosevic's military-political-mafia complex contributed to the criminalization of society, destroyed the middle class, and plundered the country," the Council on Foreign Relations said in a recent report. "Even now, the police are often involved in criminal activities, and judges and justice are too often for sale."

Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, a human rights lawyer, called Djindjic's assassination a wakeup call.

"It makes us wonder who is ruling the country," she said, "and where the real power lies."