Death squad leader guilty of killing Serbian president

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The former paramilitary commander Milorad Ulemek, who is also accused of masterminding the assassination in 2003 of the Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, was given the maximum term, while six others were given to between 15 and 40 years. Included in the indictment was a failed attempt to kill the current foreign minister Vuk Draskovic, then a political opponent of Mr Milosevic.

Rade Markovic, the former head of the secret service, got 15 years for his participation in the killing.

Mr Stambolic was killed on 25 August 2000, ahead of crucial elections in Serbia. He was kidnapped while jogging in a Belgrade park and killed in the Fruska Gora hills in the north of the country.

Handing down the sentence, Judge Dragoljub Albijanic described the killing as "particularly ruthless", and said it had been carried out on the orders of Mr Milosevic, who is on trial for war crimes at the international tribunal at The Hague. "This was a criminal enterprise with the aim of eliminating political opponents," he said.

The court heard that Mr Stambolic was forced to kneel in front of a freshly-dug hole for five minutes before he was killed with two shots to the back of the head. His body was later dumped in a lime-covered pit.

"Respecting the orders of Slobodan Milosevic, Ulemek ordered the murder of Stambolic and the attempt on Draskovic ... Their aim was to gain profit and power," the judge said. Mr Stambolic's body was found in 2003 during a police sweep after the assassination of Serbia's reformist prime minister, Mr Djindjic, who was also allegedly shot dead by Ulemek and his associates.

The attack on Mr Draskovic took place at the coastal Montenegrin town of Budva in June 2000. He was slightly injured. Mr Draskovic said yesterday that the court ruling proved that "Milosevic was the supreme commander of the terrorist regime who ordered the killing of his political opponents." He said Markovic's sentence was too lenient.

Mr Draskovic was also targeted in 1999, when four of his associates were killed in an orchestrated car crash. Ulemek got 20 years in that case, and Markovic received 10.

Mr Stambolic was widely seen as a threat during the 2000 elections after making known his sympathies for the opposition. Mr Milosevic fell from power later that year after protests in Belgrade.

Ulemek, known by his nom de guerre, "Legija", greeted the verdict with a clenched fist paramilitary salute.

The two cases were tried together, because the defendants in the crimes were the same and both acted under the orders of Mr Milosevic. Last month, Ulemek was sentenced to 15 years for attempting to murder Mr Draskovic in 1999.

Mr Milosevic has denied any involvement in politically motivated crimes. He refused to testify in the case because the domestic prosecutors who interviewed him in The Hague would not promise to release his full statement to the Serbian public.