Serbs Nab Prime Minister's Accused Killer

The alleged mastermind of the assassination of Serbia's prime minister may appear in court and testify as early as next week, a judge said Monday after the suspect's surprise surrender.

After eluding arrest since the March 2003 assassination of Zoran Djindjic (search), Milorad Lukovic (search) surrendered to police late Sunday night and was taken to Belgrade's Central Prison to await charges that the notorious paramilitary fighter organized the plot.

Lukovic — who served in former President Slobodan Milosevic's (search) 1990s war campaigns — may testify on May 10, the next hearing in the Djindjic assassination trial, said Judge Maja Kovacevic of the special court handling the high-profile case.

The sudden surrender triggered speculation about what induced Lukovic, who was also sought in connection with several other high-profile murders and abductions, to turn himself in.

He has been on trial in absentia since December, along with five other suspects, in the slaying of Serbia's first democratic prime minister since World War II.

"I don't believe that he surrendered spontaneously," said Rajko Danilovic, a lawyer for Djindjic's family.

"I am afraid that his surrender is part of a deal, that somebody promised him something," Danilovic said. He accused Serbia's current, nationalist government, led by Djindjic's former foes, of waging an "orchestrated media campaign aimed at portraying victims as villains and villains as heroes."

The current government is led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica (search), an ally-turned-opponent of Djindjic. Although Kostunica officially supports the ongoing proceedings in the murder trial, his government recently reshuffled several judges and prosecutors that had been appointed during Djindjic's tenure.

"Lukovic surrendered because he figured that the current political climate is favorable for him," said Marko Nicovic, a legal expert and former ranking police official.

Human rights activist Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco said Lukovic might seek to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for reduced or dropped charges. However, she stressed that as the suspected mastermind of the assassination, Lukovic is not legally eligible for so-called protected witness status.

Born in Croatia in 1965, Lukovic joined the French Foreign Legion (search) during the 1980s and returned to his native Yugoslavia in 1992 when the former federation was breaking up in bloodshed. He then joined Serb paramilitary units fighting on the front lines in Croatia and Bosnia.

Lukovic, 39, also is implicated in the murder of Milosevic foe Ivan Stambolic (search) in the summer of 2000 and in the attempted assassination of then-opposition leader Vuk Draskovic (search), now Serbia-Montenegro's foreign minister.

When pro-democracy politicians in Serbia ousted Milosevic in late 2000, Lukovic switched loyalty to the new government, but soon had a fallout with leaders. That led to the disbanding of the elite police Special Operations Unit that was under Lukovic's command.

But he remained popular figure among nationalists and war veterans, and was close to crime bosses and drug dealers with whom he allegedly organized the Djindjic assassination. The bullet that killed Djindjic allegedly was fired by Zvezdan Jovanovic, a former member of Lukovic's unit.

"I expect many new, interesting details will emerge that will expose some from the former government ... members of (Djindjic's) Democratic Party," said Jovanovic's lawyer, Nenad Vukasovic.