“If anyone thinks that they will stop the rule of law and implementation of reform by eliminating me, then they are badly mistaken.”
February 24, 2003
Zoran Djindjic, the prime minister of Serbia, told his driver not to take his car into the underground parking lot of the Serbian government building at lunchtime on Wednesday, March 12. He would, he said, go in through the main entrance instead, even though he could only move on crutches, slowly and awkwardly—the week before, the Serbian prime minister had injured his Achilles’ tendon playing in a soccer match between a government team and police officers.
A little earlier in the day three men dressed as maintenance workers, one carrying a toolbox, walked into an empty two-story office building some two hundred yards from the government offices on Admiral Geprata Street. The toolbox contained a Heckler & Koch G3 gun, one of the most accurate mid-range sniper rifles in the world. With his two accomplices acting as spotters, the assassin could easily hit his slow-moving victim. The impact of a high-caliber bullet at this range was so powerful that it blew Djindjic’s heart out of his body and destroyed his lungs. A second bullet critically injured his bodyguard. Djindjic tried briefly to speak but could not—within seconds he was clinically dead. He was fifty years old. A few minutes later the killers left the building, not even bothering to hide the murder weapon.
The man suspected of pulling the trigger, Zvezdan Jovanovic, was soon arrested by the Belgrade police along with two alleged accomplices and all three are being held on charges of murder. According to Serbia’s interior minister the assassins were not cheap hired hands. They were members of the Secret Police’s Special Operations Unit, the JSO, who are notorious as the most skillful and dangerous assassins in Serbia. Jovanovic is in fact a former deputy commander of the JSO.
Known in Serbia as the Red Berets, the JSO was officially designated as Serbia’s special antiterrorist unit. In fact, there was no more powerful group of terrorists in the former Yugoslavia than the Red Berets themselves. Since they were organized under Slobodan Milosevic in 1994 they had acted as paramilitary murderers in Bosnia and Kosovo; as a death squad inside Serbia; as the representatives of organized crime groups inside the Serbian state; and also as the trainers of the Lions, the Macedonian equivalent of the Red Berets, who tried but failed to turn Macedonia’s low-level civil conflict of 2001 into a much more destructive war.
By killing Djindjic, the current and former members of the Red Berets were attempting to destabilize the Serbian state in order to preserve their own power and the economic interests of their criminal associates. They had gotten away with such murders in the past, but this time underestimated the determination and alacrity with which the Serbian government, under its new prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, would respond to their challenge.