BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro - Serbia's prime minister - who spearheaded the revolt that toppled former President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 - was assassinated Wednesday by gunmen who ambushed him outside government headquarters.
Zoran Djindjic, 50, died of his wounds in a Belgrade hospital after being shot in the abdomen and back, said Nebojsa Covic, a deputy prime minister. Police sources told The Associated Press that snipers firing from a building across from the government headquarters shot Djindjic as he left his car. A high-power bullet left a dent on Djindjic's armored car.
Two suspects were arrested, witnesses said. But police, unsure whether they had the gunmen, cast a wide net for the assassins, setting up roadblocks in Belgrade and halting bus, rail and plane traffic from the capital.
Acting Serbian President Natasa Micic, citing "a danger for constitutional order," imposed a nationwide state of emergency, giving the military the same powers as police to detain suspects and investigate.
Djindjic had many enemies because of his pro-reformist and Western stands.
He was blasted by Serbian nationalists for leading the popular revolt that toppled Milosevic then handing him over for trial before the U.N. war crimes tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands. Djindjic recently promised to try to arrest Ratko Mladic, a former Bosnian Serb military commander and the number 2 fugitive sought by the tribunal, thought to be hiding in Serbia.
The tribunal is handling alleged war crimes committed during the wars that erupted during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia
Djindjic was also engaged in a bitter political feud with his former ally Vojislav Kostunica, who stepped down as Yugoslav president earlier this month after the formation of a new state, Serbia and Montenegro.
Djindjic also was squaring off with the nation's powerful organized crime figures, declaring open war on rampant smuggling of contraband goods and women.
The assassination heralds turbulent days for Serbia. A bitter power struggle for Djindjic's successor could effect cooperation with West, particularly over arresting and handing over indicted war crimes suspects.
Djindjic appeared to have been targeted last month, when a truck suddenly cut into the lane in which his motorcade was heading to Belgrade's airport. The motorcade narrowly avoided a collision, and Djindjic later dismissed the Feb. 21 alleged assassination attempt as a "futile effort" that could not stop democratic reforms.
After Wednesday's shooting, the Cabinet held an emergency session, declaring three days of mourning.
"This criminal act is a clear attempt by those who in the past have tried to stop Serbia's progress and democratization by assassinations to change the course of history and once again isolate Serbia and turn it into a criminals' haven," Covic said.
Otpor, or Resistance, an independent pro-democracy group, said the shooting means "criminals have won the battle" in Serbia.
President Bush expressed his condolences. Djindjic "will be remembered for his role in bringing democracy to Serbia and for his role in bringing Slobodan Milosevic to justice," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Police carrying machine guns and clad in bulletproof vests stopped traffic in downtown Belgrade, searching cars and checking passengers. Police also took up positions in front of key government buildings and the central post office. The hospital where Djindjic was taken had been blocked by police, and Djindjic's sobbing wife, Ruzica, was seen being led away from the hospital building.
Djindjic saw Serbia's fate as linked to the West and favored greater cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal, where Milosevic now is standing trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Djindjic's feud with Kostunica since the two jointly toppled Milosevic had virtually paralyzed the country's much-needed economic and social reforms.
Kostunica said Wednesday that while he disagreed with Djindjic on many issues, the assassination was "awful ... this shows how little we have done to democratize society." He told B-92 radio that the killing was "a warning to look ourselves in the eye and ask how much crime has permeated all the pores of society."
Djindjic was often criticized by his opponents for seeking too much power and for "mercilessly" combating his political rivals.
A German-educated technocrat known to supporters as "The Manager" for his organizational skills and as "Little Slobo" to his detractors for his authoritarian tendencies, Djindjic nonetheless managed to gain some political capital from his willingness to surrender Milosevic despite a constitutional ban on extraditing Serbian citizens.
Though derided for his fondness for big cars and flashy suits, Djindjic's trade of Milosevic for $1.2 billion in international economic aid appeared to have won respect from people desperate to improve a living standard that ranks among the lowest in Europe.
Born in 1952 into the family of a Yugoslav army officer in the town of Bosanski Samac near the Bosnian border, Djindjic was raised and educated in Belgrade.
In the early 1970s he enrolled in the School of Philosophy at Belgrade University, a hotbed of liberal opposition to the Communist regime. In 1977, he left to earn a doctorate in philosophy at Heidelberg, Germany.
Djindjic took active part in all protests against Milosevic's rule since 1991. He became Democratic Party president in 1994 and was active in the anti-government protests of 1996-97.