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Serbians rise up

Thousands storm parliament. Opponents claim win. Milosevic missing. Clinton says no U.S. intervention.

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 2000


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- As the federal Parliament burned and tear gas wafted through chaotic streets, vast throngs of Serbs wrested their capital and key levers of power away from Slobodan Milosevic on Thursday, bringing his 13-year reign to the edge of collapse.

Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition leader who claimed victory in the presidential election Sept. 24, moved through an ecstatic crowd of several hundred thousand and proclaimed, "Good evening, dear liberated Serbia!"

The crowd shouted his name, and he shouted back: "Big, beautiful Serbia has risen up just so one man, Slobodan Milosevic, will leave."

Behind the crowds, smoke from the burning Parliament building mingled with the blacker smoke from the burning state television and radio center, and tear gas, all set loose as hundreds of thousands of Serbs roamed through the city to demand the exit of a leader who had brought them years of ethnic conflict, isolation and international contempt.

"As of today, Serbia is again a democratic nation," declared an opposition leader, Nebojsa Covic, referring to Yugoslavia's main republic. "It belongs to all of us, to Europe and to the world."

The whereabouts of Milosevic and his family were unknown, though he was believed to be still in Serbia. Opposition leader Zoran Djindjic said Milosevic was holed up near the eastern town of Bor, some 50 miles southeast of the capital, near the border with Romania and Bulgaria. He said Milosevic had not been in touch with the opposition camp.

The opposition's domino-like successes did not fully erase fear that Milosevic could strike back. Djindjic warned that Milosevic was preparing "a coup" to regain control, Reuters reported.

"The most critical moments are not over," said Vuk Obradovic, a former general turned opposition leader. "It is very important that people stay in the streets."

Kostunica asked supporters continue demonstrating until dawn to try to block any possible counterattack by the military.

Tens of thousands heeded his call and roamed about in impromptu celebrations well past midnight.

Kostunica also appealed to people from the countryside to stream into Belgrade for rallies today. "We call on the military and police to do everything to ensure a peaceful transition of power," he said.

The crowd chanted for Milosevic's arrest. Kostunica answered: "He doesn't need to be arrested. He arrested himself a long time ago."

Two main pillars of the Milosevic regime, the state news media and many of his police, were gone. But though the army stayed out of the fray, the chiefs of the security forces had yet to formally shift their allegiance to Kostunica, and Milosevic had not relinquished power.

While the Belgrade police did not take serious action against the protesters, Milosevic's interior minister, Vlajko Stoiljkovic, refused to meet Kostunica's representatives, instead asking them: "What have you done to Belgrade?"

Opposition leaders, including Momcilo Perisic, the former chief of staff that Milosevic fired in October 1998, were reported talking to the army to persuade them to stay out of this struggle and to recognize Kostunica as president.

For the time being, there were no contacts between Milosevic and Kostunica. The opposition leader told the crowd not to march on Milosevic's home and office in the suburb of Dedinje, saying: "Answer their violence with non-violence. Answer their lies with the truth."

As Kostunica also asked the demonstrators to remain where they were while he tried to call the new federal Parliament and city government into session, the mood was boisterous, ecstatic and proud.

"All of us have simply had enough," said Petr Radosavljevic, a mechanical engineer. "All we want is a normal country, where there is a future for young people."

Damir Strahinjic, 25, waving his arm over the crowd, said: "This should be enough to see the end of him. But you never know in this country, with this guy."

A former Yugoslav army chief of staff, retired Gen. Momcilo Perisic, appealed to the armed forces to support the democratic forces. He said what was left of the police force had already agreed not to attack people "unless they break into public buildings and cause damage."

"I talked to the army leaders and they promised not to intervene," Perisic said without elaborating. Perisic said, however, that Milosevic and his allies are "determined" and there remains a chance they might be planning a counterattack from somewhere "outside Belgrade."

Earlier, Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party of Serbia attacked the opposition for causing unrest and violence and vowed to fight back with "all means to secure peaceful life."

But faced with an uprising that has spread throughout much of Serbia, undercutting his control of the media and the police, Milosevic may have run out of moves. Members of his Socialist Party were contacting opposition leaders and even human rights lawyers.

The United States and European governments threw their support behind Kostunica and the opposition. In Washington, President Clinton declared, "The people of Serbia have made their opinion clear. They did it when they voted peacefully and quietly, and now they're doing it in the streets."

The Yugoslav state news agency Tanjug began referring to Kostunica him as "the elected president of Yugoslavia" in a report signed, "Journalists of Liberated Tanjug." The state newspaper Politika, founded in 1904 and deeply degraded under the Milosevic regime, went over to the opposition. And on state television, a new slide appeared: "This is the new Radio Television Serbia broadcasting."

At 11:30 p.m. Thursday night, Kostunica urged reconciliation on the "liberated" state television channel, which normally serves up a steady diet of government propaganda and distorted news.

Speaking of the burning buildings and clashes, Kostunica said: "We hope that these sad incidents are behind us. My first hours started with pleasure, that a vision of Serbia I had all these years has started to be fulfilled." He promised people the "peace" that he said they yearned for, and he promised that state television would remain "a mirror for Serbia" and "open to all views and all voices," including those of the coalition that has run this country.

He called for the lifting of international sanctions against Yugoslavia, and said the European Union on Thursday night promised to do so as early as Monday. While he said "we cannot forget what some countries did to us last year during the NATO bombing, we can't live against the grain," and he promised normal relations with the world.

Thousands of people Thursday pressed into Belgrade from opposition strongholds like Cacak and Uzice, called here as a climax to a week of rolling strikes, and some were spoiling for a fight. They pushed aside police barricades on the roads to Belgrade, and some stripped police of their shields and weapons. Some were equipped with sticks and rocks, brought with them in a truck, and they led the taking of the federal Parliament building, which had been heavily guarded by police.

The building was soon on fire, its windows broken, and some demonstrators began to loot it for souvenirs, including chairs, hat racks and leather briefcases used by parliamentarians. Portraits of Milosevic and ballot papers for the Sept. 24 elections were dumped from the second floor, all of them circled to vote for Milosevic.

The police were lavish with their use of tear gas, which filled the streets of downtown Belgrade, but they did not charge the crowd. They used batons and stun grenades, but those who did were overwhelmed by the crowd, and some young men marched happily with their trophies: plastic police riot shields and helmets.

When crowds approached the back entrance of Radio Television Serbia, police started to come out with their hands raised. The crowd greeted them with "plavi, plavi," or blue, referring to the color of their uniforms, and gave them opposition badges.

There was a similar scene at a police station in nearby Majke Jevrosime street. When police left the building, some in the crowd gave them civilian clothes. But the building was then looted, including weapons.

The station was then set afire with gasoline bombs.

In the skirmishing, at least one person died, and 100 were injured Thursday, according to independent radio B2-92.

The day's massive uprising was the culmination of a campaign to defend Kostunica's victory in the presidential elections that Milosevic called in an attempt to restore his own tattered legitimacy. It was a tactical mistake of the first order, because Serbs took the election as a referendum on Milosevic's 13 years of rule and misrule.

According to the opposition, Kostunica won at least 51.33 percent of the vote against four other candidates, an outright victory. But with electoral fraud, manipulating votes from Kosovo, the Federal Election Commission reduced his percentage to just under 50 percent and called a second round runoff.

Kostunica called it theft and vowed that he would not accept a runoff for an election that he had won under Milosevic's unfair rules and media domination. A series of strikes and protests on his behalf began to spread through Serbia this week.

The key moment may have come on Wednesday, when Milosevic's police failed to break a strike at a key coal mine in Kolubara. The workers, who had struck Friday to support Kostunica, refused to leave and called for help. Some 20,000 relatives and ordinary citizens from surrounding towns came to their aid, and police let them go through, refusing to attack. Thursday night, police withdrew entirely from the mine.

Later that night, Tanjug reported that the highest court ruled that the presidential election was invalid because of irregularities. But the court's judgment, supposed to be published Thursday, did not come, and Kostunica made it clear Thursday night that it was simply too late to think about any compromise over the election with the authorities.

Russia's Putin refuses to take sides in conflict

MOSCOW -- Striking a cautious tone, Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to take a position on the leadership struggle in Yugoslavia.

He took no step toward recognizing the Sept. 24 election victory of the opposition leader, Kostunica, a step that the United States and European governments were hoping he would take.

Instead, as he returned overnight from a state visit to India, Putin closeted himself with his top security advisers at Sheremetyevo Airport and then read a statement on state television saying simply that further violence must be avoided.

"In a democratic society, all disputes have to be solved in a peaceful, legal manner and, of course, in the interests of the people," he said. "Any other behavior would not facilitate the challenges that the country if facing."

He expressed alarm that with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the streets, "everything that is going on there may grow into direct violence -- and this must not be allowed."

Putin identified Russia's interest in bringing an end to Yugoslavia's isolation and said Russia was ready to help this longtime ally "firmly stand on the path to democratic development."

-- Information from the Associated Press and Knight-Ridder Newspaper was used in this report.

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