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Serbia's Catalogue of Killings

Since the beginning of the war with Croatia, more than 500 people have been assassinated in Serbia - with police either unwilling or unable to solve the crimes.
By Srdjan Staletovic

While speculation about the motives and suspects in the spectacular killing of Serbian warlord and criminal Zeljko ("Arkan") Raznatovic continues, the question posed with increasing trepidation is, "Who's next?"


Following the murder of man whose security few people doubted, hardly anyone in Serbia feels secure. Arkan's killing is at least the 500th unsolved murder in Serbia in less than six years. Contract murderers, assassins, disgruntled war veterans and disappointed criminals appear to have become as strong as the state itself. No one feels safe any longer, and some even wonder who is now in control in Serbia.


The Serbian regime is not ready publicly to acknowledge its inability to combat the increasing crime. But Vladan Batic, leader of Serbian Democratic Christian Party, has called for the resignations of Police Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic and Justice Minister Dragoljub Jankovic.


"The 500 hundred unsolved murders in Serbia seriously questions general security in Serbia and the capability of the regime to protect its citizens," Batic said. He has as yet had not response from the government or other political parties.


In 1999 five policemen were killed in Belgrade alone. The murderers of two police inspectors and one policeman were found within less than 24 hours, but the killers of two senior police officers were never traced.


Contrary to what might be expected, the higher up the social scale the victim is, the less likely the police are to bring anyone to justice. Lieut. Dragan Vlahovic, deputy chief of the police criminal investigation unit at the Belgrade police headquarters, was killed on March 11, 1999, at the entrance to the Kosutnjak sports centre in Belgrade. The murderers were never found.


Likewise for the killers of Radovan Badza Stojcic, chief of the Serbian secret service, who was brutally murdered in the Belgrade cafe Mamma Mia in 1997. Police are still trying to trace the killers of Lieut.-Col. Dragan Simic, chief of police for the Belgrade municipality of Savski Venac. Simic was killed outside his home on July 8, 1999.


A Belgrade publisher and chronicler of the underworld, who wishes to be known only as Z.J., told IWPR, "the number of murdered policemen is in strange proportion to the number of murdered criminals in Serbia". This source maintains that among the police and criminals there exists a very well defined code of honour.


"Around seven to ten 'small time' criminals are killed as a counter measure for the murder of a low-ranking police inspector. After the murder of high-ranking police official it is the turn of 'big time' criminals. Decisions concerning the ranking of criminals, the scale of their offences and possibly the place and time of an attack are carried out at logistic centres, which are the same for the police and mafia", Z.J. claimed.


In the last 12 months Belgrade has witnessed several spectacular killings, with the victims all shot in the head at close range: Predrag Ikac, a local gambling magnate; Zoran Koca Kovacevic, co-owner of several casinos in Serbia; Dragan Ugar Ugarkovic, ex-member of the foreign legion; Zoran Sijan, a "king" of the Belgrade mafia. Sijan was gunned down in Belgrade on November 27, shortly after nightfall, as he stepped from his car at a red light. None of the perpetrators have been found.


Both the murders of police officers and Serbian gangland criminals share similar characteristics. In most cases the attacks are carried out by two assassins. In more than 90 per cent of the cases, the gunmen use automatic pistols, like the Heckler thought have been used against Arkan, or sawn-off shotguns. Large calibre guns have been used in several cases. While the two gunmen shoot the victim, a third accomplice usually tours nearby in a car, ready to whisk the culprits away at lightening speed.


Most of these murders are carried out during the day, in early morning or late afternoon. Only a small number are committed at night. In many instances the killings are meant to serve as a message.


For example, the owner of Dnevni Telegraf ("Daily Telegraph"), Slavko Curuvija, was murdered in broad daylight on April 11, 1999. Curuvija was gunned down outside his home on the day of Orthodox Easter, which also happened to be the second anniversary of Stojcic's murder. Curuvija had been close to regime circles but then broke with the government following his broadside "Letter to Milosevic". The lesson was clear.


Another similarity shared by all these murders is the accuracy of the killers. Despite the fast and brutal nature of the attacks, it is very rare for the wrong person to be killed or for bystanders to be caught in the gunfire. One exception was Mija Pavic, a journalist at Studio B TV station, who was killed when gunmen opened fire on her boyfriend, a Belgrade mafia boss from Vozdovac. She died in the passenger seat of their jeep under a hail of machine-gun bullets. The attackers were never found. Pavic was a witness at the wedding of Arkan's wedding to Svetlana ("Ceca") Velickovic.


The first wave of murders in Serbia coincided with the beginning of the war in Croatia. From late 1991 through to 1995 circles of criminals, their associates, their partners and "famous" policemen were eliminated one after another.


"A small pool with many crocodiles" was how one Belgrade criminal described Serbia in the documentary "See You in the Obituary", filmed in Belgrade in 1994. He did not live to see himself on TV. He was brutally killed just after midday in a Belgrade car park.


Two disturbing questions arise from this catalogue of killings: if 500 people have been ambushed and killed in Serbia and their killers are still at large, just how many professional killers live in the country? And who is controlling their activities?


A retired expert from the Belgrade Institute for Social and Criminal Investigation, who wishes to remain anonymous, claimed that in Serbia "violence and murder is controlled" and affects the profile and number of perpetrators.


"In Serbia there exists an old fashioned but famous model based on the Russian secret service and loosely named the 'model-circle'. This system represents an organisation whereby the perpetrators of one crime become the victims of the next one, and so on. The criminal circle is therefore becoming smaller because they kill each other and the 'quality' of murder remains the same," this expert said.


He claims that the way the planning, timing and other factors in the excution of the murders suggest the existence of a "brain" or centre, which "controls the killings and is in charge of their effects".


Commenting on the murder of Raznatovic in the lobby of the Intercontinental hotel, this source asserted: "It is important to establish whether some 'new Arkan' plans to place himself in the public scene of Serbia and how he would verify this position. I hope that he will not do it by another murder".


Analysts of the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic regime believe a well-trained and absolutely loyal police apparatus represents his most important power base. However, with the perpetrators of at least 500 murders still at large, many acknowledge the existence of a power in Serbia stronger than Milosevic's police force. Or it may be just that the police have no interest in resolving such crimes.


Srdjan Staletovic is a regular contributor to IWPR from Belgrade.


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