The prime suspect in the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic appeared on Monday in a Belgrade court and denied involvement in the March 12, 2003, killing.
The suspect, Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, also alleged on Monday that former members of Djindjic's government had sanctioned heroin sales in Western Europe.
Djindjic's supporters rejected Lukovic's charge of the alleged sale of more than 1,500 pounds of heroin from police vaults to drug dealers, according to Serbia's Beta news agency. Lukovic presented no evidence to support the claim, the Reuters news agency reported from Belgrade.
Lukovic, who had been on the run until May 2, surrendered shortly after Djindjic's party lost power to a coalition led by more conservative Serbian officials.
He made the allegations two weeks before Tomislav Nikolic, a radical nationalist, and Boris Tadic, a former member of Djindjic's cabinet, are to face each other in a runoff for the presidential post. Djindjic's supporters alleged that Lukovic's aim was to tarnish the party's legacy and help Nikolic win the election. Several of Djindjic's former aides told local journalists that the story was a fabrication and that the drugs had been destroyed.
The cache of heroin first surfaced six months after the government of Slobodan Milosevic was swept from power by a September 2000 election and subsequent violent street demonstrations. Newly appointed Interior Ministry officials announced they had found the drugs in a deposit box at a Belgrade bank that was registered to the police.
At the time, the police said the heroin -- which was displayed for the media -- had been seized at a border crossing. No detailed explanation was given for it being stored at the bank, and the matter dropped from public attention.
Lukovic said top Djindjic aides told him in April 2001 that it would be silly to throw away something worth hundreds of millions of dollars that could be sold for the profit of the impoverished state. Lukovic argued in court that NATO had given Serbia bombs and depleted uranium during the 1999 war in Kosovo, so why not pay them back in hard drugs?
"To tell you the truth, I rather liked it. It could be a little bit of revenge of us ordinary people, who were bombed for 78 days" by NATO, Reuters quoted Lukovic as saying in court. "And if that is the will of the state, then I accept," he said. Lukovic said he smuggled the heroin with three of his men across the Danube and Drina rivers and into neighboring Bosnia, Croatia and Romania for later sale in Western Europe.
Djindjic, a pro-Western reformer backed by the United States, was shot and killed by a sniper outside government headquarters. Prosecutors say crime bosses linked to the unit headed by Lukovic, which had enjoyed the protection of the Milosevic regime, were bent on toppling Djindjic because he had planned a major government crackdown on organized crime.
Lukovic, a former police official, is charged with planning the assassination. Some of his co-defendants are members of the same police group, and some are members of a criminal group that had formed an alliance with the police. "With regard to the murder of Zoran Djindjic . . . I had absolutely nothing to do with this event," Lukovic told the court, Reuters reported.