Forty-Four Charged in Slaying of Serbian Prime Minister

Serbian prosecutors Thursday charged 44 people, including the ex-commander of a notoriously brutal police unit, in the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic (search).

Djindjic, known for his pro-Western stance, was gunned down March 12 as he stepped from his car in front of government headquarters in Belgrade (search).

Prime suspect Milorad Lukovic and 15 others were charged with murdering Djindjic, prosecutors said in a statement. Lukovic is a former commander of the Red Berets, a unit known for its brutality during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

The other 28 suspects, not identified in the statement, were charged with conspiracy to kill Djindjic.

Authorities have said Djindjic's killing was orchestrated by a group of underworld bosses and Serb nationalists who wanted to replace him with allies of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic (search).

Milosevic is on trial at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands on charges of genocide and other war crimes allegedly committed by Serb troops during the Balkan wars.

A close Milosevic ally during the Balkan wars, Lukovic has been on the run since Djindjic's assassination.

The prime minister orchestrated Milosevic's ouster from power in October 2000 and his extradition to The Hague in June 2001.

The statement said the case against another suspect in Djindjic's killing, Serbia's ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, would be separately reviewed for "legal reasons." Seselj, also a Milosevic ally, surrendered to the U.N. war crimes tribunal shortly before Djindjic's murder.

Also Thursday, a Serbian government commission investigating possible failures by members of Djindjic's security team noted "numerous omissions in the prime minister's security apparatus."

The commission said no study on possible security risks to the prime minister had been carried out before the killing and that video surveillance cameras at the government building entrance were shut off two days before the sniper attack because of repair work in the basement.