BELGRADE, Serbia, March 13 (UPI) -- Three suspects in Wednesday's assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic have asked for protected witness status and are making statements to a special prosecutor in Belgrade, authorities said Thursday evening.
The three are among eight arrested members of a 200-strong criminal gang known as the Zemun Clan. Their statements so far have confirmed the gang's involvement in a variety of crimes, officials said. They did not specifically say the prime minister's slaying was among them but declared instead, "The statements made so far confirm the participation of this criminal clan in the criminal acts mentioned." The Serbian government report earlier referred to Djindjic's assassination as a criminal act.
More pointedly it went on to say: "In cooperation with police in the neighboring countries and the intelligence services and criminal police departments in several European states, information has been obtained confirming the implicatation of this criminal clan in organizing and carrying out the assassination of the Serbian prime minister."
Djindjic, a reformist known internationally for his role in the overthrow and extradition of Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, also encouraged a crackdown on organized crime since taking office in January 2001. He was shot twice, in the stomach and back, shortly after noon Wednesday as he walked from his car into the Parliament building in Belgrade. He died during emergency surgery.
In addition to the prime minister's assassination, police have accused the Zemun clan of of some 50 murders, dozens of abductions of rich businessman that have brought them millions of dollars in ransom, robberies and drugs trafficking -- their original business.
However, Belgrade officials added, the "criminal conspiracy" that led to Djindjic's murder spread further than the Zemun clan. Other groups -- mostly members of police and security structures in the time of ex-Yugoslav President Milosevic collected in various "national-patriotic" associations today -- were involved either directly or indirectly, they said.
Altogether 56 suspects have been taken into custody since the assassination, the government statement said. Earlier Thursday, Belgrade Police Chief Milan Obradovic told reporters in a Belgrade news conference that apartments and houses of suspects were being searched.
Police investigations at the scene of the crime had established that three men wearing blue overalls took part in the shooting. The three took up positions in a house in Admirala Geprata Street, close to where Djindjic was hit with two bullets outside the Parliament building, Obradovic added.
One of the men was armed with a rifle and the other two with pistols. They were seen fleeing toward nearby Balkanska Street and so far have not been traced, he added.
Immediately after the killing, police issued photographs of 23 men who they said were the leaders of the Zemun clan, a group of some 200 accused criminals tied to killings, kidnappings for ransom, drugs trafficking and other serious crimes.
Korac said that the two most prominent members of the clan, Milorad Lukovic, known as Legija, and Dusan Spasojevic, nicknamed Siptar (the Serbian derogatory name for an Albanian), were on the run. He added that this was the best proof they were involved in the Djindjic murder.
Lukovic until recently commanded Milosevic's elite secret police unit believed to number anything up to 2,000 military-trained troops. Milosevic was president of Yugoslavia, a former Soviet satellite, during its bloody break-up along ethnic lines during the 1990s. He is now standing trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity before a U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.
One man close to the Zemun clan accused Lukovic and Spasojevic, also a former member of the secret police, of being behind the abduction and killing in 2000 of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and about 50 other "liquidations." They also abducted businessmen, bringing the clan millions of dollars in ransom money, said Ljubisa Buha, known as Cume.
Korac confirmed that the clan was extremely rich and much better equipped than the police. Just the ransom obtained for the release of Miroslav Miskovic, the director of "Delta Holding," one of Serbia's biggest commercial companies, was $7 million, he said.
In April 2001, Spasojevic was suspected of Miskovic's kidnapping but was released for lack of evidence. The following month, he and four associates were arrested in France with forged passports and deported to Yugoslavia.
Korac said a traffic accident last month involving a truck and a car in which Djindjic was riding near Belgrade must also have been an assassination attempt. The truck driver, Dejan Milenkovic (also known as Bagzi), was arrested for causing the accident and was suspected of having a role in the apparent assassination plot. But a court ordered his release.
Korac said Bagzi went missing after first going to Spasojevic's fortified house. A warrant for his arrest is outstanding.
Korac told United Press International that the great problem was corrupt people, relics of the Milosevic regime who often still hold an official capacity. Many of these were in the pay of criminals, still have extensive contacts in the police and the courts, and were desperate to curb democratic reforms that Djindjic and his government had pushed through.
Also on Thursday, a senior Serbian Parliament official informed members of the restriction on civil liberties imposed Wednesday by acting Serbian President Natasa Micic as part of a state of emergency. They include suspension of the right to strike and to stage protests as part of trade union, political or other activity. Any public gathering aimed at hampering emergency measures are also prohibited, he said.
Other possible suspensions could include the inviolability of personal letters and other means of communication, freedom of citizens' movement, and right to privacy in the home. Authorized officials may enter property of people deemed suspects without first obtaining a court order.
The press and other forms of media may be banned from publishing news and comments on the emergency measures and be restricted to dissemination only of official information.
Micic said Wednesday, "The murder of Dr. Djindjic represents an attack on the constitutional order and the greatest crime against the stability and security of our state."
Djindjic's killing, the first of a sitting European leader since Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot and killed in 1986, sent shockwaves throughout Europe and called into question the stability of the fledgling democracy that has aspired to joining the European Union.
Serbia was the dominant body within the Yugoslav republic, the remnants of Yugoslavia after its fragmentation into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. The Yugoslav republic recreated itself last month as Serbia-Montenegro and elected its first president only a week ago.