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Baby-Faced Hitmen Add to Rising Crime In Troubled Serbia

IN a city where mafia-style feuds are common, the death of a mobster rarely makes headlines. Yet the recent killing of Dejan Marjanovic was splashed across front pages - less because of his reputation than how he died - at the hands of a teenager.

Dubbed the ``uncrowned king of Zvezdera,'' a commercial district of Belgrade notorious for racketeering, Marjanovic was killed outside his home. Expecting an attempt on his life, he'd contacted a local paper a few hours before the assassin struck.

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``I'm afraid I'm going to be killed by kids looking for glory. Mad kids with guns on their hips,'' he told the Telegraf, a weekly with a penchant for underworld stories. ``They're walking the streets and ready to shoot.''

Enticed by the power, glamor, and wealth of Belgrade's growing crime syndicates, teenage hoodlums are quickly establishing themselves as the foot soldiers of organized crime, Belgrade criminologists say. Police suspect juvenile gunmen of committing dozens of gangland slayings this year.

Toughened by war and poverty, youngsters are swelling criminal ranks. The number of offenses committed by minors has doubled this year accounting for 25 percent of robberies, assaults, and murders in Belgrade.

Guns have become fashion accessories for Serbia's alienated youth. Shootouts at primary and secondary schools have become so common that police regularly patrol playgrounds.

The young criminals have provided mobsters with a large pool of recruits, keen to move on from the meager earnings of small-time thefts to major-league vice.

The mobsters' appeal has been enhanced by their exploits on the battlefields of former Yugoslavia. Many of them commanded notorious paramilitary units in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. While condemned by the outside world as war criminals, they're celebrated here as national heroes.

With their warrior image and flamboyant lifestyles, some gangsters have acquired mass followings. Aleksander Knezevic, a particularly stylish hood, was very popular with youths here.

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His liking for skin-head haircuts, gold chains, and baggy trousers set the street fashion for young toughs. When he was gunned down, thousands of them attended his funeral, with many vowing to avenge his death.

Criminologists say teenagers are so keen to join the ranks of organized crime that they're prepared to do much of their dirty work. Killing rivals raises their standing within the gang hierarchy. ``The best way of getting close to the boss is to be a shooter,'' said Telegraf crime reporter, Branko Cecen.

Sipping espresso in a glitzy Belgrade bar, ``Nino,'' a sullen 17-year-old, describes how he and his mates became ``shooters'' for the mob. ``We started doing kiosks, dealing drugs. Sometimes the cops got us and beat ... us. But this made us stronger. We felt we could take on anyone. That's when we got into the shooting business. For us it's just a dangerous sport.''

Criminologists say the mobsters employ youths as gunmen because they're bold, cheaper than professional hitmen, and fiercely loyal. ``They never dislose the name of their boss,'' said Belgrade judge Vladimir Ilic.

Demand for hitmen has grown in the last 18 months because of the proliferation of organized crime, policemen say. Violence has mushroomed, with around 100 underworld killings a year, a 100 percent increase on the prewar rate.

Crime leaders concede that they fear the young guns more than the police force, much of which, they claim, is in their pay.

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