By DUSAN STOJANOVIC
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia – Mobs seeking to topple Slobodan Milosevic turned their fury on his centers of power today, leaving parliament and other key Belgrade sites in shambles and flames and pushing the Yugoslav president to an inevitable choice: fight back or bow down.
Hundreds of thousands of people swarmed the capital to demand that Milosevic accept his apparent electoral defeat by Vojislav Kostunica in the Sept. 24 election. 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.
Dozens of people were injured, according to witnesses. Some police who fired on demonstrators were beaten.
“What we are doing today is making history,” Kostunica proclaimed during an evening speech in front of Belgrade city hall, across from parliament. “We call on the military and police to do everything to ensure a peaceful transition of power.”
Independent B-92 radio said Kostunica called an inaugural session of the new parliament for late today.
The crowd chanted for Milosevic’s arrest. Kostunica answered: “He doesn’t need to be arrested. He arrested himself a long time ago.”
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.”
Clashes spread through the capital, which echoed with the sound of stun grenades and tear gas fired to break up the crowds. Later, both state television channels went off the air before coming back on under opposition control, and the state-run Tanjug news agency – one of chief pillars of Milosevic’s rule – announced it is no longer loyal to him.
“From this moment, Tanjug informs the Yugoslav public that it is with the people of this country,” a statement carried by the agency said. Another Tanjug report referred to Kostunica as “President-elect of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.”
The conquest of the parliament was highly symbolic. But the loss of the state media and the government-run newspaper Politika was a bigger blow to Milosevic, denying him his biggest propaganda tools.
The uprising swelled as security forces showed little willingness to battle the largest anti-Milosevic protest in his 13-year rule. Many police joined the flag-waving crowds as they surged across central Belgrade. Thousands more people joined smaller rallies in towns throughout the country.
There was no immediate reaction from Milosevic, and his whereabouts were not known. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said that as far as the United States knows, Milosevic was still in Belgrade.
A statement from Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia said it would “fight against violence and destruction” with “all its force and in all state institutions,” Tanjug reported.
There were fears the mayhem could allow Milosevic to declare a state of emergency and come down hard on his foes. 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.
The government acknowledges that Kostunica outpolled Milosevic in the Sept. 24 election but says he fell short of a majority in the five-candidate race. A runoff had been set for Sunday.
The president has already countered in the courts in an apparent bid to cling to power: The Milosevic-controlled Yugoslav Constitutional Court issued a decision Wednesday that Tanjug said nullified “parts” of the election. The ruling outraged opposition supporters, who had brought the case in hopes Kostunica would be declared the winner.
Hundreds of thousands of people broke through police convoys and streamed into Belgrade for today’s opposition rally, and the melees erupted as the rally was beginning.
One attempt to storm parliament was repulsed by tear gas, but following waves of protesters broke through. By late afternoon, opposition supporters who had been inside the parliament building were climbing through the windows and onto the complex’s balconies, waving flags as the crowd roared below.
Inside the building, chaos reigned. Gangs of young people, many of them intoxicated, roamed the building, smashing furniture and computers and looting what valuables they could carry.
But police offered little resistance and the clashes ebbed. Afterward, as night fell, thousands of demonstrators walked the streets in a relatively relaxed atmosphere. Some were drunk and brandishing handguns.
Many protesters wore paper caps with the slogan, “We’ll Endure.” They moved past shops, some shut down with signs stating, “Closed because of Robbery” – an allusion to opposition claims that Milosevic stole the elections.
Several shop windows were shattered, and by evening orange flames still billowed from part of the parliament building. Big trucks with loudspeakers drove through Belgrade blasting folk and rock music. The downtown headquarters of the Yugoslav Left, the neo-communist party run by Milosevic’s wife, was demolished, with the graffiti “People’s Revolution” sprayed on inside walls.
More than 100,000 people gathered in front of parliament before Kostunica’s evening speech. Protesters – from burly farmers to black-robed Serbian Orthodox priests – waved Yugoslav flags outside the building.
The crowd chanted “Kill him! Kill him!” as opposition leaders claimed victory over Milosevic.
“At this moment, terror rules in Belgrade,” state television said in a commentary earlier, before a bulldozer broke into its headquarters and the opposition took it over. “They are attacking everyone they see on the streets and there is chaos.”
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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