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Serbia: Hitmen Rounded Up

Does arrest of men suspected of killing former police chief signal start of a real crackdown on the criminal gangs.
By Davor Lukac

The arrest of a group of contract killers held responsible for the most spectacular murder of a leading official in Serbia's recent history has thrown the spotlight on the links between organised crime and Serbia and Montenegro's security services.


In a spectacular swoop, Serbian police last week arrested a group of professional hitmen, with strong ties to Milosevic era secret service, RDB, whom they hold responsible for the killing of former police chief Bosko Buha on June 10 in Belgrade.


Though the action was aimed at promoting the Serbian government's crime-busting skills for the benefit of domestic and international audiences, it inadvertently raised the whole issue of the ties between the mafia and the secret service, which was not systematically reformed after Milosevic's departure.


Since the fall of Milosevic on October 5, 2000, the authorities have faced strong local and international pressure to deal with the former regime's criminal legacy, especially the organised crime gangs and their connections to the RDB and political circles throughout the country.


But after promising a crackdown, the new authorities took no visible action against the underworld until now. Many saw an explanation for this in the help that criminal groups and the secret service rendered in overthrowing Milosevic two years ago.


Under the former regime, the criminalisation of society was laid bare by hundreds of unsolved murders, not only of criminals but also of policemen, politicians and journalists. The trend was maintained after the installation of the new government in October 2000, with dozens more murders, also unsolved.


The sensational assassination of Bosko Buha on June 10 drew a bloodcurdling pledge from Serbian police minister Dusan Mihajlovic to "raise heaven and earth" to find the killers. The tough talk met with public approval but also raised new questions.


Nikola Maljkovic was arrested under suspicion of killing Buha along with one accomplice. Police then said they were looking for the man who allegedly organised the murder, Zeljko "Maka" Maksimovic and had questioned dozens of people close to this group, including policemen and RDB members. These include both officials from the Milosevic era and the current government.


The Police and Security Information Agency BIA, the new name for the Serbian state security service, explained that the arrested "terrorist group" was underpinned by highly profitable smuggling activities in oil, cigarettes and narcotics and was destabilising the state.


The authorities claimed the group also planned to assassinate a number of well-known politicians, including Serbia's prime minister Zoran Djindjic, the parliamentary chief of the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, Cedomir Jovanovic, and the leader of the extreme-right Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj.


Crime analysts are sceptical of such claims, believing they are little more than political propaganda. They believe the capture of the killers has raised more significant issues concerning the ties between organised crime and Serbia's state structures, above all the security service.


Dobrivoje Radovanovic, director of the Institute for Criminological Research, told the Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti in early November that the RDB had played a key role in shaping mafia-related crime in Serbia since 1992.


"Most of the responsibility lies with the secret service," he said. "They made the underworld their allies in the fight for Serbian interests in Bosnia and Croatia. They gave every criminal an RDB ID and the secret police and the criminal underworld increasingly overlapped each other."


The case of Zeljko Maksimovic underlines the existence of such a relationship. In 1995, after killing a policeman who asked him for his identity papers, he walked free from jail just three days later. Serbian police sources told IWPR that his ties to the secret service made him untouchable. The sources said he was only one of a group of criminals to be given an official RDB identity.


He fought in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia together with the infamous paramilitary boss Zeljko "Arkan" Raznjatovic, who was also thought to be close to the secret service. Maksimovic was suspected of killing the acting Serbian police minister Radovan Stojcic in 1997.


A few days ago, Belgrade police said he was in Montenegro when his friends were arrested but had since escaped to Cyprus. Belgrade media said he'd got away thanks to his connections to Montenegro's state security service.


Because the web of links between the RDB and organised crime took on a clearer shape since Maksimovic was implicated in Buha's murder, many voices here are now demanding a thorough investigation of the ties between the state and the mafia. The deputy Serbian premier Nebojsa Covic asked Serbia's police minister to officially declare which present and former politicians were in contact with Maksimovic.


Dobrivoje Radovanovic believes members of the RDB and the police, besides the underworld, have involved in most high-profile assassinations.


Some observers say several killings of criminal gang leaders in Belgrade in recent months were more sophisticated in their execution than any known previous murders in city, suggesting possible official involvement.


The latest discovery of a group of contract killers may turn out to mark a milestone in the attempts to come to terms with the criminal legacy of Milosevic's regime.


Sceptics, however, maintain the arrests may lead to nothing and are simply an attempt to placate the public. They ask why no criminal charges were pressed against Maksimovic and why no arrest was attempted in Montenegro where he was two days after the arrest of his accomplices. The police explain their seeming indecisiveness over arresting him by saying they wanted to round up the rest of the group first.


Everyone agrees that only further arrests will signal a real determination on the part of the authorities to start a determined fight against the mafia. If not, it will be clear that the latest detentions were a limited action and not intended to seriously disturb the people who helped the current government take power two years ago.


Davor Lukac is a journalist with the Tanjug news agency.


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