As Serbia marks the 18th anniversary of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic’s assassination by an organised crime gang and state security officers, BIRN looks back on how the last of the killers were arrested, shot by police or murdered by their associates while on the run.
By Milica Stojanovic
On April 5 this year at Belgrade Higher Court, the trial will start for an attempted murder in a village near Zagreb in Croatia in June 2010.
Both the suspect and the victim, Milos Simovic and Sretko Kalinic, are Serbian citizens and former members of a notorious criminal gang.
At the time of the incident near Zagreb, both Simovic and Kalinic were on the run, wanted for arrest in Serbia for participating in the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the anniversary of whose death on March 12, 2003 will be commemorated in Belgrade on Saturday.
The incident led to both men being captured and brought to justice, and they are now serving 30-year prison sentences in Serbia.
Simovic and Kalinic were members of the Zemun Clan, the biggest organised crime group in Serbia in the 1990s and early 2000s. The gang was broken up by police in a large-scale crackdown called Operation Sabre after Djindjic’s assassination.
The operation uncovered evidence that led to convictions for Djindjic’s killing and resolved other major crimes such as murders, attempted murders and kidnappings by the Zemun Clan.
Twelve people were sentenced to a total of 348 years of prison time for the killing of Djindjic. But at the time that the final verdict was handed down in 2008, five of them were on the run – Simovic and Kalinic, plus Ninoslav Konstantinovic, Vladimir Milisavljevic and Milan Jurisic.
Eighteen years on from Djindjic’s murder, only two of these five fugitives have not been caught: Jurisic, who was killed in Madrid in 2009 by his fellow gang members, and Konstantinovic, who is officially missing but is also believed to have been murdered by his own comrades.
Smashing the clan
The Zemun Clan had connections in high places; it enjoyed a close relationship with Serbian State Security’s Special Operations Unit, a special forces unit originally established in 1991, under another name, for deployment in armed operations in the war in Croatia, and then in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Former Serbian State Security chief Jovica Stanisic and his deputy, Franko ‘Frenki’ Simatovic, the Special Operations Unit’s first commander, are currently awaiting the verdict in their trial in The Hague for crimes committed in Bosnia and Croatia by paramilitary units that they are accused of controlling.
The murder of Zoran Djindjic was a collaboration between the Zemun Clan and the Special Operations Unit. Operationally, it was planned and coordinated by Special Operations Unit commander Milorad Ulemek, alias Legija, and Dusan Spasojevic, one of the two leaders of the Zemun Clan.
The man who pulled the trigger, Special Operations Unit member Zvezdan Jovanovic, initially told police that Djindjic was killed to prevent government further cooperating with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. After coming to office in the wake of the uprising that ousted Slobodan Milosevic, the government led by Djindjic had sent Milosevic to The Hague to face trial. The unit had previously staged a brief mutiny in November 2001 against extraditions to The Hague.
Jovanovic said that Ulemek told him that Djindjic’s government was planning to disband the Special Operations Unit, arrest some of its members and send them to The Hague too. But during the trial, he went back on this statement, saying he gave it under police pressure.
The court established that this was not the only motive for the crime, but that Ulemek and Spasojevic also wanted “to prevent a fight against organised crime and to keep the positions they had acquired in areas they were interested in, especially in the police, courts and prosecutor’s office”.
It was never established whether or not any Serbian politician or state official ordered or approved the hit.
Prior to March 2003, there were several unsuccessful attempts to kill Djindjic, one of them a month earlier, when the prime minister and his family were coming back from the Serbian mountain resort of Kopaonik.
Konstantinovic’s role in the March 12 assassination was to find an appropriate location for the shooting and to be there, together with Aleksandar Simovic and the shooter, Zvezdan Jovanovic, to sound the alarm if anyone came. They decided that the back entrance of the Serbian government building in Belgrade was the right place to hit Djindjic as he arrived for work.
At the scene, Konstantinovic and Simovic were pretending to be labourers. Milisavljevic was their driver, while Jurisic’s job was to keep a parking spot nearby free until Jovanovic, Konstantinovic and Simovic arrived.
Sretko Kalinic was on the street in front of the building from which Jovanovic planned to shoot, together with the Zemun Clan’s other leader, Mile Lukovic, ready to provide armed back-up if needed.
Aleksandar Simovic’s brother Milos Simovic was passing on information about Djindjic’s movements to his brother and other gang members.
The plotters staked out the government building for two days, until Djindjic finally arrived on the third day, March 12, 2003. Jovanovic then shot him as he got out of his car.
Directly after the assassination, a state of emergency was imposed and the police launched a large-scale crackdown. During Operation Sabre, a total of 11,665 were held, and 3,946 of them were ultimately charged. Meanwhile the plotters went to ground and scattered around apartments that the Zemun Clan used as hideouts.
Amid the crackdown, gang member Miladin Suvajdzic met Zemun Clan boss Spasojevic to tell him that the Simovic brothers, Milisavljevic and Konstantinovic had moved to another apartment and were asking what they should do next. Spasojevic responded that they must move apartments again as the place they were in was not safe.
“[Spasojevic said that] we have had that apartment for a long time, over a year and a half, and our neighbours know us there, everyone knows us, so because of the photos [of gang members shown on television], that apartment has to be changed, so they can’t be in it for a long time,” Suvajdzic told the court in 2004.
Suvadjzic met Konstantinovic to tell him that they must find another location to hide, but also another car and money.
“When I talked to Konstantinovic, he said: ‘Djuka, I can’t find hardly anything, they arrested all my people, they are arresting everyone alive, they just burst in and make arrests. Whoever who is around now – in an hour, who knows if he will be around,’” Suvajdzic testified.
“By the way, I told them that he [Spasojevic] has no money, that he says that they can manage on their own, [Konstantinovic] says ‘How, Djuka, where can I manage, with whom can I manage?’” he added.
Without money from the Zemun Clan boss Spasojevic or support from the Special Operations Unit, they were left to fend for themselves.
The shooter, Zvezdan Jovanovic, and many other gang members, were arrested a couple of days after the killing. Gang bosses Spasojevic and Lukovic were killed the same month in the Belgrade suburb of Meljak while police were trying to arrest them.
Special Operations Unit commander Milorad ‘Legija’ Ulemek surrendered in May 2004, while another gang member, Dejan ‘Bagzi’ Milenkovic, was arrested in Greece in July 2005.
Aleksandar Simovic was arrested in November 2006 in Belgrade. But his brother Milos Simovic and Sretko Kalinic remained at large and out of the headlines until the shooting in the village of Rakitje, some 15 kilometres from Zagreb, in June 2010.
‘Lured to his death’
When Croatian police went to take a statement from the victim of the shooting in Rakitje, he told them his name was Sretko Kalinic and that the person who tried to kill him was Milos Simovic, who he described as his “former friend”.
By that time, both had been convicted in absentia in Serbia for the killing of Djinjdic and the various crimes they committed as Zemun Clan members. Ninoslav Konstantinovic, Vladimir Milisavljevic and Milan Jurisic were also convicted in absentia.
Kalinic said that Konstantinovic helped the Simovic brothers and Milisavljevic by hiding them at one of his friend’s homes at the beginning of Operation Sabre, and that they then hid at a friend of Milisavljevic’s in Serbia.
According to Kalinic’s statement,he then left Serbia went to Spain in November 2003. Milos Simovic was already in Spain. Kalinic claimed that Simovic told him that while he was still in Belgrade in 2003, he had killed Konstantinovic somewhere near Surcin on the outskirts of the capital.
“Milos also told me that he lured Ninoslav Konstantinovic into a forest near the highway leading from Belgrade to Zagreb… He lured him by telling him that his wife would come there,” Kalinic told the police.
He added that Simovic killed Konstantinovic together with another gang member, Milan ‘Jure’ Jurisic, because Konstantinovic “got on his nerves”.
“According to Milos’s story, the murder was committed by Milos himself with a pistol, shooting Ninoslav Konstantinovic in the head from close range,” Kalinic said.
He added that Simovic must know where Konstantinovic’s grave is because he and Jurisic buried him. Konstantinovic’s body has never been found, however.
Boro Banjac was head of Serbia’s Directorate for Combating Organised Crime when Operation Sabre started. He explained that at that time, the police had teams whose job was to track down suspects who were on the run.
“I do not think the Interior Ministry had a more important task at that time,” Banjac told BIRN.
Banjac explained that at that point, police only had “hearsay” information about Simovic, Kalinic and Konstantinovic’s whereabouts, but that they knew about Konstantinovic’s killing.
“We even went there to dig, to look for Zeljko [Mihajlovic] Crnogorac [another gang member, killed in 2000] and Ninoslav [Konstantinovic], but we did not find anything tangible so that we could claim that he was buried there,” he said.
BIRN tried to get a comment from Konstantinovic’s lawyer Olivera Djordjevic, but she did not respond to phone calls, text messages or email.
Slaughter in Spain
On February 9, 2012, two years after the shooting near Zagreb, three Serbian men went to a restaurant in the Spanish city of Valencia for dinner. They did not finish their meal, because police entered the restaurant and arrested them. The three men were Luka Bojovic, Vladimir Milisavljevic and Sinisa Petric.
Luka Bojovic had been a member of the Arkan’s Tigers paramilitary unit, led by the criminal and warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, which had been involved in the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Bojovic was not indicted for Djindjic’s murder, but was suspected of taking over the leadership of the Zemun Clan after its chiefs Spasojevic and Lukovic were killed in 2003.
Milisavljevic however was wanted for Djindjic’s murder, and he would become the last gang member to be arrested for the crime.
The Spanish court verdict from December 2014 gave more details about the movements of those involved in Djindjic’s death while they were on the run.
Zemun Clan member and Djindjic murder suspect Sretko Kalinic testified in court as a witness, saying that Bojovic had contacted him in Zagreb, and that they both moved to the Spanish capital Madrid in 2009, where they lived in a rented house with another gang member, Milan Jurisic.
Kalinic’s testimony, which was included in the verdict, said that Bojovic then decided to kill Jurisic “due to disagreements between the two”, the verdict said.
“On March 5 or 6, 2009… L. Bojovic, in the presence of V. Milisavljevic and S. Kalinic, repeatedly hit M. Jurisic on the head with a hammer, and he died immediately. The three of them took the body to the kitchen, where L. Bojovic and V. Milisavljevic proceeded to dismember it and wrap the pieces in paper and bags, then placed it in the refrigerator,” the testimony said.
“The next day, they proceeded to grind up the remains, breaking an electric meat grinder, and Kalinic and Milisavljevic went to buy another, with which they continued grinding, then threw part of the ground-up remains into the bathroom toilet. Bojovic and Kalinic cut up the bones with a wood saw. Milisavljevic dedicated himself to breaking up the corpse’s head,” it added.
It went on to say that Kalinic then threw the rest of Jurisic’s remains into the Manzanares River in Madrid and left Spain a few days later.
However, the Madrid court did not believe Kalinic’s claim that Bojovic killed Jurisic, and its verdict only found Milisavljevic guilty of involvement in the murder.
A year and a half after the verdict was handed down, Kalinic was still on the run when another of his Zemun Clan comrades, Milos Simovic, shot him in Croatia.
According to media reports, Simovic tried to flee Croatia after shooting Kalinic, but was arrested when he attempted to enter Serbia. Kalinic was extradited to Serbia in August 2010.
In September 2011, the two men’s retrial for Djindjic’s killing started in Belgrade, as they had previously been sentenced in absentia.
According to media reports, Simovic admitted participating in the assassination, while Kalinic denied it. In 2012, the retrial verdict upheld their convictions. Both men were sentenced to 30 years in jail.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Milisavljevic is still serving a sentence in Spain for his involvement in the killing of Jurisic. When he completes this jail term, he is then expected to be extradited to Serbia to serve another sentence – the last of the gang to be imprisoned for his role in the killing of Djindjic 18 years ago.
Djindjic’s killers: where are they now?
Milorad ‘Legija’ Ulemek Former commander of the Special Operations Unit and mastermind of the Djindjic killing, now serving his sentence for this and other Zemun Clan crimes.
Dusan ‘Siptar’ Spasojevic and Mile ‘Kum’ Lukovic Heads of the Zemun Clan, both killed by police who were trying to arrest them in March 2003.
Zvezdan Jovanovic The Special Operations Unit’s deputy commander, now serving his sentence for Djindjic’s killing.
Aleksandar Simovic Zemun Clan member, arrested in 2006, now serving his sentence for Djindjic’s killing and other Zemun Clan crimes.
Ninoslav ‘Nino’ Konstantinovic Zemun Clan member who was never arrested. Believed to have been murdered but his body has never been found.
Vladimir ‘Vlada Budala’ Milisavljevic Zemun Clan member, now serving a sentence in Spain for various crimes.
Sretko ‘Zver’ Kalinic Zemun Clan member, arrested in Croatia 2010, extradited to Serbia and now serving his sentence for Djindjic’s killing and other Zemun Clan crimes.
Milos Simovic Arrested in 2010 after he tried to kill Sretko Kalinic in Croatia, now serving his sentence for Djindjic’s killing and other Zemun Clan crimes.
Milan ‘Jure’ Jurisic Zemun Clan member, killed in Madrid, Spain in 2009 by fellow gang members.
Dusan Krsmanovic Zemun Clan member, serving his sentence for Djindjic’s killing.
Sasa Pejakovic Special Operations Unit member, served part of his sentence and was granted early release in 2013.
Branislav Bezarevic Former Security Information Agency (BIA) officer, now serving his sentence.
Zeljko ‘Zmigi’ Tojaga Special Operations Unit member, served part of his sentence and was granted early release in 2018.