The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Thousands march in memory of slain Serbian reformist prime minister

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More than 15,000 people joined a march Tuesday honouring Serbia's slain prime minister Zoran Djindjic, in an outpouring of grief for the reformist leader who launched the Balkan country's bid to reconnect with the world after the wars of the 1990s.

Djindjic was killed by a sniper shot on March 12, 2003, in front of the government headquarters in central Belgrade. More than a dozen nationalist paramilitaries and criminals have been convicted and sentenced in connection with the killing.

Djindjic played a key role in the ouster in 2000 of Serbia's strongman Slobodan Milosevic and his extradition to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands. While serving as prime minister in 2001-2003, Djindjic launched reforms and set Serbia on the path toward membership in the European Union.

"He taught us the meaning of the word hope," Dragan Djilas, who now heads Djindjic's Democratic Party, said.

Western-educated and energetic, Djindjic has become a symbol for many Sserbians of the struggle against Milosevic-era nationalism, which turned the country into an international pariah during the 1990s.

Although Serbia has since progressed in its bid to join the EU, many here feel that the reform pace would have been much quicker if Djindjic had not been killed.

Today, the Serbian government is dominated by former Milosevic allies, who have switched to a pro-EU policy during the past decade, but who have refused to fully abandon Milosevic's legacy.

The current ministers honoured Djindjic on Tuesday for the first time since taking power last summer, laying a wreath outside the government building where he was killed.

At the cemetery, thousands of citizens lined up throughout the day to light candles and put flowers on his grave.

"I come here every year," said Milica Markovic, a pensioner from Belgrade. "We should have been there for him ten years ago."

Marta Slipcevic added that "when he was killed, Serbia died as well."

During the assassination trial, the judges ruled that Djindjic was killed with an aim to stop the reforms and bring back to power Milosevic's nationalist allies.

Milosevic died of a heart attack in 2006 while on trial for genocide at the Hague tribunal.

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