BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro - Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a reformer who helped overthrow Slobodan Milosevic and sent him to face a war crimes trial, was assassinated outside his office in downtown Belgrade yesterday.
Djindjic, who had many political enemies, was shot in the back and stomach next to his armored car. Police said he was felled by two rifle shots fired by a sniper who fled. Djindjic, 50, was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Quoting officials it did not identify, the Serbian news agency Beta reported that three people had been arrested.
Some officials suggested that the killing was the work of gangsters angered by Djindjic's reform efforts.
Djindjic's death leaves Serbia without a prime minister or an elected president as it struggles to rebuild from a decade of wars that made the country an international pariah.
Western governments had pinned their hopes on Djindjic to steer his country through reforms. None of the politicians likely to succeed him enjoys the same degree of international support.
The Serbian government, an unwieldy coalition that relies on Milosevic's old party for a majority in parliament, immediately declared a state of emergency and appointed the deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, as Djindjic's temporary replacement.
Like the acting president, Natasa Micic, who took over last year after low voter turnout invalidated two successive presidential elections, Covic has no popular mandate and represents a fringe party.
Any effort to form a government of national unity is likely to be undermined by politicians scrambling to fill the vacuum left by Djindjic, who effectively centralized power around himself and his most loyal lieutenants.
"The main consequence of all of this will probably be elections, but it's difficult to see any decisive leadership emerging," Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst in Belgrade, said. "In any case, whoever is in power still has to deal with the mess this country's now in and the relentless pressure to hand over suspected war criminals."
Officials and commentators alike speculated that the assassination was ordered by members of Belgrade's powerful underworld, whose influence the government has come under strong international pressure to curb.
The issue is complicated by the fact that several prominent criminals were also instrumental figures in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed or driven from their homes, mostly at the hands of Serbian forces.
Threat of indictment
Djindjic sought to contain these individuals, whose help he enlisted to ensure a peaceful transfer of power after Milosevic was toppled, by warning them that they faced possible indictment by the United Nations' war crimes tribunal.
Many commentators had cautioned that this strategy was inherently risky.
"The link between those loyal to the old regime and criminal elements in our society is still very strong," Stevan Lilic, a professor of law at Belgrade University, said. "This was not just a criminal act, but a clear message that no shift forward will be tolerated."
Djindjic's chief political rival, Vojislav Kostunica, said all parties should now pull together to tackle the gangster culture that flourished under Milosevic's government, which turned criminals into contract killers and smugglers into oligarchs.
Djindjic's assassination was "a terrible wake-up call," Kostunica said, "which shows the very short distance we have traveled in our efforts to achieve real democracy in our society."
The government building where Djindjic was ambushed was sealed off by heavily armed state security officers.
Police officers carrying machine guns and wearing bulletproof vests stopped traffic in downtown Belgrade, searching through cars and checking passengers. Flights from the city's international airport were grounded, and performances at theaters were canceled.
Praise from abroad
Tributes to Djindjic poured in from abroad, where officials praised his efforts to put war criminals on trial and the economy on the road to long-term recovery.
Even in Croatia, where anti-Serb sentiment is still widespread almost a decade after it fought for its independence, politicians said Djindjic would be missed.
"This is not good for Serbia, not good for us in the neighborhood," President Stjepan Mesic of Croatia said. "Serbia has been through a difficult period, "and this assassination will slow down its progress toward democracy."
But in Serbia, where fewer people yet see the benefits of such reforms, the reaction was more muted.
Some of the people gathered outside the government building where he was shot were in tears, but after the assassinations of several other senior officials over the past decade, others were almost indifferent.
"Sure it's a tragedy, but he's not the only one," said a woman who gave her name only as Branka. "People are dying all the time here, and no one seems to do much about it."