Legija "the Legionnaire" is the nickname of the Serbian criminal suspected of masterminding the assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic last March. After fourteen months on the run, Legija surrendered to Serbian police yesterday. This came as a complete surprise. Several of Legija's associates had been captured or killed in the weeks following Djindjic's death. Legija himself, though, had simply disappeared. The general assumption was that he was living someplace far away -- Moscow, say -- with a new set of papers and possibly a new face. Not. He surrendered at his house in Belgrade. And while his whereabouts for the last fourteen months remain unknown, it looks like he may have been in Serbia for most or all of that time.
It gets weirder. Legija is accused of some heavy, heavy crimes -- assassination, murder, conspiracy, you name it. Nobody has any idea why he might have surrendered. Belgrade is abuzz with speculation, but nobody yet seems to have any hard facts. -- For those who haven't been following this story, here's some background. Legija is a native Belgrader; he was born Milorad Ulemek in 1965. In the mid-1980s he fled to France and joined the Foreign Legion. He stayed with the Legion for several years, fighting in Chad, Libya, Beirut, French Guyana and Iraq (the first Gulf War, 1991). It was this phase of his career which earned him his nickname Legija, the Legionnaire. Legija returned to Serbia at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars in 1992 and joined the Serbian Volunteer Guard, aka "Arkanís Tigers". This was a paramilitary group that would quickly become notorious for a variety of war crimes; their leader, Arkan, was for many years a particular favorite of Slobodan Milosevic. (Though Milosevic would eventually turn against him, leading to his murder in 2000.) Legija became one of the Guard's commanders, and fought with Arkan in Croatia and Bosnia. When the Tigers were disbanded, Lukovic joined the notorious Special Operations Unit of Serbiaís secret police, better known as the Red Berets. The Red Berets were nominally an "antiterrorist unit", but they were widely considered to be Milosevicís Praetorian Guard. Legija became commander of the Red Berets in 1999. He is suspected of involvement in the murder of four officials of Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement in a staged traffic accident in 1999. (This was one of several not-quite-successful attempts to kill Draskovic himself.) A few months later, during the war in Kosovo, Legija commanded the Red Berets in the field. As in Bosnia and Croatia, he left behind numerous allegations of atrocities and crimes. Then came the fall of Milosevic. Legija's role in this remains controversial, but the most generally accepted version is that he met with Kostunica and Djindjic -- who were then leaders of the opposition -- and effectively negotiated a change of sides. The Red Berets would not intervene to save Milosevic. The new government, in turn, would leave them most of their privileges and would not prosecute or even inquire too deeply into their lives and their pasts. Once the new government was firmly in place, though, this arrangement began to erode. Part of the problem was that the West kept pressing Serbia to cooperate with war crimes investigations. Many of the Red Berets were involved in these investigations, either as potential defendants or as witnesses. Another problem was that the Red Berets had deep links to organized crime on one hand, and the radical fringe of Serbian politics on the other. So the new government began putting more and more pressure on the group -- first disbanding them, and then becoming (from their point of view) ever more hostile and threatening. In the simple version of the story, this led to Legija eventually organizing the assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic, hoping or believing that this would destabilize the government. Of course, in Serbia nothing is simple, and there are truly baroque layers of conspiracy theory piled upon the few facts that are generally known and accepted. We still don't know what really happened with Djindjic's assassination, and it's entirely possible that we never will. Maybe I'll do a post on that sometime, but maybe not -- it's complicated. As I mentioned, several of Legija's associates were captured or killed in the weeks immediately following the assassination. Two of his senior henchmen were supposedly killled in a shootout with police. However, last month an autopsy surfaced that showed they had been killed by shots to the back of the head, probably while bound and kneeling. This to give just one example of the fog of fact that surrounds almost every aspect of this case. Still: Legija has surrendered. And while this is all very strange, it does seem to be better than having him run around free. More on this in a bit, if anyone is interested.