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Suspected Serb Premier Assassin Confesses

December 25, 2003

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) _ The alleged assassin of Serb Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic told police days after the slaying that he killed the reformist leader to stop the extradition of Serbs to the U.N. war crimes tribunal, according to a confession read out Thursday at his trial.

Zvezdan Jovanovic, a former commander of an elite police unit, is charged with firing the fatal shots that killed Djindjic on March 12 as he stepped out of his car in front of the government headquarters in central Belgrade.

``I personally killed Zoran Djindjic,″ Jovanovic reportedly said during an interrogation after his arrest in late March.

Jovanovic’s confession was read by the presiding judge, Marko Kljajevic, despite objections from defense lawyer Nenad Vukasovic, who suggested the confession was obtained under threat of force and should be declared invalid.

Vukasovic stressed that his client made his confession while emergency measures were in force giving police broader powers than usual.

There were reports of police abuse at the time, and human rights groups condemned the state of emergency declared by the government in the wake of Djindjic’s killing.

Jovanovic refused to enter a plea Wednesday, accusing the court of being biased and incapable of conducting a fair trial.

Authorities have said the attack on Djindjic was part of a wider plot to unseat his pro-Western government. Besides Jovanovic, 35 police and their alleged gangster associates have been charged with assassinating the prime minister and a number of other criminal acts.

In his reported confession, Jovanovic outlined how he and the others plotted Djindjic’s assassination. He described the killing in detail and said his group was responsible for three previous failed attempts to kill the prime minister.

``I consider this a political assassination. I believed that it would stop the further extradition of our warriors to The Hague,″ Jovanovic was quoted as saying, referring to the international war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.

The Hague tribunal is trying those believed responsible for atrocities committed during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Those facing charges include former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and several of his top associates.

``I am willing to stand trial in Serbia, but I will never go to The Hague,″ Jovanovic said, according to the statement.

Jovanovic’s unit, the Red Berets, was notorious for brutality during the Balkan wars. The unit’s former commander, Milorad Lukovic, better known as Legija, is the alleged mastermind in the assassination and the trial’s prime suspect. He remains at large, however, and is being tried in absentia along with 13 other suspects.

``Legija told me that we must kill Djindjic,″ Jovanovic said, according to the alleged confession read out by judge Kljajevic. ``He told me we were on the list″ for The Hague.

The Hague tribunal so far has not raised indictments against Jovanovic or Lukovic.

Djindjic was instrumental in handing over Milosevic in 2001 and had pledged to extradite other suspects shortly before he was killed.

The ongoing trail, which started Monday, is considered a key test of the independence of Serbia’s judiciary more than three years after Milosevic’s autocratic regime was replaced by a pro-Western coalition.

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