Opposition claims it has votes to oust Milosevic

By KATARINA KRATOVAC

Associated Press

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia – Yugoslavia’s opposition claimed today it has enough votes to avoid a runoff against President Slobodan Milosevic, as election officials remained silent on the official vote count.

The opposition accused the government of stalling while Milosevic tries to manipulate the results, either to declare himself the winner or force a runoff vote on Oct. 8. It said the State Election Commission has until Wednesday to release the results of Sunday’s election or it would proclaim challenger Vojislav Kostunica the winner.

The opposition’s latest tally, based on 97.5 percent of the ballots, showed Kostunica, leading with 55 percent to Milosevic’s 35 percent. Milosevic’s party had said Monday that with 37 percent of the ballots counted, the president was ahead with 45 percent to Kostunica’s 40 percent.

All political parties were allowed to have representatives present when votes were counted locally.

Opposition alliance spokesman Cedomir Jovanovic insisted today that the election commission convene, calling its silence “unprecedented.” He offered opposition registers and balloting material to assist the commission if necessary.

Milosevic’s officials should “congratulate the opposition and hand over power without fear,” Jovanovic said, appealing to “reasonable members … to persuade their leadership to accept the results.”

The United States and dozens of European countries have issued stern calls for Milosevic to recognize the opposition tally and step down.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in speech today to a Labor Party conference, said: “And I say to Milosevic. You lost. Go. Your country and the world has suffered enough.”

By midday today, the commission had not reconvened after a brief meeting Sunday night, according to Sinisa Nikolic, a member of the panel from the ranks of the opposition alliance.

“We are not even dealing with preliminary results, and I have no idea where and how the ballots are being counted,” Nikolic said.

A Greek parliament member, one of several foreign observers invited by the Yugoslav government, also expressed concern about delays in releasing the results. Carolos Papoulias told an Athens radio station it was certain that Milosevic’s party suffered “a widespread defeat” in municipal elections.

“It also seems that the present coalition retains a majority in the two parliaments and the third thing from what we hear is that there may be a second Sunday for the election of a president,” Papoulias told Athens’ Flash radio.

However, the chairman of the commission, Borivoje Vukicevic, told several dozen foreign observers from “friendly” countries – such as Russia, China and some African nations – that had monitored the balloting that the commission was working “efficiently and in accordance with the law.”

“The elections were free and fair,” Vukicevic said, as quoted by the state Tanjug news agency. “Experience tells us that the citizens have given their trust to those who most deserve it, who are most capable of leading state policies of this honorable and dignified nation.”

Tens of thousands of people hit the streets Monday night in Belgrade and elsewhere across Serbia to celebrate what the opposition and much of the international community has said was a stunning victory and an end of Milosevic’s 13-year autocratic rule.

The United States has pledged to lift sanctions against Yugoslavia – which include blocking international bank loans, an oil embargo and denying visas to Yugoslav officials – once Milosevic accepts defeat.

“We accept Milosevic as an indicted war criminal. He belongs in The Hague. He doesn’t belong at the helm of the Yugoslav government,” said White House spokesman P.J. Crowley. “There’s no way that Milosevic can claim a victory.”

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, whose country currently holds the rotating European Union presidency, today urged the EU Commission to take the necessary measures to lift sanctions against Yugoslavia and pledged support for the opposition.

“Something has happened with this vote that will not stop. The hour of change has rung in Belgrade,” Vedrine said.

Yet Milosevic’s camp showed itself unprepared to give in, reportedly jamming the last remaining independent Belgrade radio station – student Radio Index – during its live coverage of the opposition celebration.

All other independent electronic media were banned by state authorities on the eve of elections last week.

Ljubisa Ristic, a neo-communist Milosevic ally, while insisting the president could still win in the first round, admitted Milosevic’s coalition suffered a sweeping defeat in municipal elections.

Just 150 miles northwest of Yugoslavia’s pro-Western republic of Montenegro, U.S. and Croat naval forces simulated a landing operation today on an island in the Adriatic Sea – part of their largest and most demanding joint exercise to date.

Some speculated the timing was aimed at discouraging Milosevic from exerting force to ensure he stays in power. Capt. William Crow, commander of the USS Austin, said the exercise was planned months ago and was unrelated to the Yugoslav elections.

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

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