Croatia promises Mafia crackdown after new killings


CROATIA'S LEADERS vowed yesterday to stop a wave of increasingly brazen mafia attacks before they damage the country's bid to join the European Union, after a bomb blast killed two leading media figures in the centre of the capital, Zagreb.

Ivo Pukanic, the owner and chief editor of the Nacionalnews magazine, and its marketing director Niko Franjic, died when a bomb hidden under Franjic's car exploded on Thursday night.

The attack came just two weeks after Croatia replaced its interior and justice ministers and its chief of police following the murder of Ivana Hodak (26), the daughter of a prominent lawyer, when she was shot in the stairwell of her Zagreb apartment block.

"We will fight organised crime or terrorism - whatever is behind this murder - to its very end. From now on, no criminal can sleep peacefully," prime minister Ivo Sanader declared yesterday after an emergency session of Croatia's national security council.

"The president and I want to send a message to the Croatian public that we shall fully tackle organised crime, mafia or terrorism . . . Croatia will be a safe country," Mr Sanader said.

President Stipe Mesic said Croatia faced "an unprecedented challenge from criminal circles. Now it is them or us . . . rule of law and the safety of citizens versus criminals, terrorists and mafia."

The bomb attack poses a particularly stark challenge to the government, coming just a fortnight after the launch of a crackdown on organised crime following Ms Hodak's murder, which itself came on the heels of vicious attacks on a well-known Croatian crime reporter, a member of the Zagreb city council and a leading businessman.

The violence - and the police's failure to find the culprits - have cast a cloud over Croatia's drive to complete EU accession talks next year and join the bloc by 2011.

"This is the most serious obstacle in Croatia's accession talks since they started," the European Parliament's rapporteur for Croatia, Hannes Swoboda, told a local news website.

"I think the government's negligence towards organised crime and corruption has to stop . . . and prime minister Sanader must personally take measures against organised crime."

In response, Mr Sanader insisted that "this won't be an obstacle and Croatia will be a safe country".

While he said there was no need to declare a state of emergency, he did announce the introduction of "extraordinary mobilisation measures", without giving details of what they would entail.

Pukanic (47) was praised for some of Nacional'sinvestigative reporting, but was also criticised for being too close to powerful political, business, security service and even criminal figures. He claimed to have been shot at six months ago, but did not have police protection at the time of his death.

"This is no longer merely a fight against organised crime. This is something that all of Croatia will rise up against," said Mr Sanader, who was reportedly on good terms with Pukanic. "I will not allow Croatia to become another Beirut," he added.