Milosevic on ropes

By DUSAN STOJANOVIC

Associated Press

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia – Mobs seeking to topple Slobodan Milosevic turned their fury on his centers of power Thursday, leaving parliament and other key Belgrade sites in shambles and flames. The 13-year rule of the Yugoslav president appeared to have collapsed.

State media said that army commanders were meeting in Belgrade early toFday and that a statement was expected.

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.

“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.”

By nightfall the crowd’s fury was spent as the symbols of Milosevic’s power -_police stations, state media – had fallen to the opposition. Huge crowds wandered the streets and gathered in the squares celebrating their apparent victory.

Opposition leaders, including some former senior military officers, appealed to the armed forces to support their candidate, Vojislav Kostunica.

Djindjic said shortly before dawn today that he felt “the critical period” overnight when Milosevic military could have counterattacked against the opposition supporters “was over.”

On Thursday, hundreds of thousands of people swarmed through the capital to demand that Milosevic accept his apparent electoral defeat by Kostunica in the Sept. 24 election. The uprising developed with stunning speed, swelling as security forces showed little willingness to battle the largest anti-Milosevic protest ever.

Some police who did fire on demonstrators were beaten, as was the director of Serbian state television, Dragoljub Milanovic, one of Milosevic’s closest allies. He was punched, kicked and pummeled with sticks as he tried to flee the television station.

The government’s Tanjug news agency, which defected to the opposition, said two people were killed and 65 injured in the rioting. All but 12 of the injured were treated and released from hospitals, Tanjug said.

Many police put down their clubs and joined flag-waving crowds as they surged across central Belgrade through clouds of tear gas. As demonstrators charged and riot police cowered behind helmets and shields, the federal parliament building, the state broadcasting center and police stations fell in quick succession.

Protesters tossed documents and portraits of Milosevic through the broken windows of the parliament complex. Smoke billowed from the building and from the state television headquarters nearby.

“What we are doing today is making history,” Kostunica proclaimed during an evening speech in front of Belgrade city hall, across from parliament.

The opposition’s domino-like successes did not fully erase fear that Milosevic could strike back.

“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 to continue demonstrating until dawn to try to block any possible counterattack by the military.

Tens of thousands were still heeding his call as dawn approached today, roaming the streets in impromptu celebrations.

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.

At the White House, President Clinton said: “The people are trying to get their country back.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said of Milosevic: “Your time is up. Go now.”

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.”

During an interview on state television, Kostunica said he envisions a democratic Serbia that has normal relations with other countries and does not suffer under diplomatic sanctions.

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions against the Milosevic regime for several years. But French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, is “taking the necessary steps” for the EU to reconsider the sanctions as soon as Monday.

The Yugoslav military remained in its barracks and it was unclear whether the army remained loyal to Milosevic, but his security forces appeared to be disintegrating, with protesters seizing police precincts without a fight. The level of defiance was unprecedented in Yugoslavia’s 55-year communist history.

“They’re giving up,” said a demonstrator who identified himself only as Sasha.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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