Regional Report: Motive for Djindjic Murder Emerges

Main assassination suspect may have been trying to prevent his extradition.

Regional Report: Motive for Djindjic Murder Emerges

Main assassination suspect may have been trying to prevent his extradition.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Milorad Lukovic, chief suspect in the slaying of Serbian premier Zoran Djinjic, is the personification of the warrior-thug elevated to power by former president Slobodan Milosevic.

Lukovic was head of the elite police unit the Red Berets, Milosevic’s praetorian guard. They were highly trained commandos, but were controlled not by the army, which Milosevic never entirely trusted, but the interior ministry.

Lukovic was commander of Red Berets units used in Kosovo, where they were implicated in a string of war crimes.

He took his orders from and Milosevic’s secret police chief Jovica Stanisic and his deputy Franko Simatovic, all of them implicated in war crimes, but have yet to be publicly indicted.

Later, he played a key part in ensuring that Milosevic was unable to remain in office after his defeat in elections in October 2000.

That month, despite Vojislav Kostunica’s convincing electoral victory, Milosevic tried to use the security forces to cling to power.

But Djindjic had a bizarre meeting with Lukovic – choosing as a venue the back of an armoured car.

As the two men were driven around the streets of Belgrade – hidden from view – a deal was struck. Lukovic agreed he would support Djindjic or at least refuse any orders to stand in his way.

What Djindjic offered in return is the subject of speculation.

A few days later, Lukovic’s time came. When protesters seized Belgrade TV station, the Red Berets were ordered to go there and take it back.

Instead, when Lukovic arrived at the TV station, he got out of his jeep, gave the Serb three-fingered salute, got back inside again and ordered his troops to return to barracks.

From that moment on, Milosevic’s fate was sealed.

Some think Lukovic’s payoff was to be left alone in the hunt for war criminals. But the honeymoon between Djindjic and the Red Berets did not last.

In November 2001, the police unit were told to arrest two twins, Predrag and Nenad Banovic, who sold fruit and vegetables in a Belgrade market. Only when the commandos handed the men over to regular police did they find out that they were Hague war crimes suspects.

Furious – and perhaps fearing that they might be next – Red Beret commanders took action. More than 100 troops drove to Belgrade, parking their armoured cars in the centre of the city, close to the parliament building.

Meanwhile, another Red Beret unit swung south, cutting off the main Belgrade to Nis highway – the only route along which army reinforcements could come.

Parliament - and Djindjic – were defenceless. But the Red Berets made no move to attack. Instead, with their point made, they drove home again, presumably hoping they were now immune from The Hague.

Clearly Djindjic was worried. But this year he was forced to risk a confrontation with the Red Berets yet again as the West threatened to cut aid unless he extradited more war crimes suspects - such as Lukovic and other former and serving members of the unit.

Djindjic made his choice. Supporters say it may have cost him his life.

Chris Stephen is IWPR’s bureau chief in The Hague.

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