BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — President Slobodan Milosevic gagged the loudest voices of Serbia's pro-democracy movement Wednesday by seizing control of independent radio and television stations here.
Police from an elite anti-terrorist squad stormed an office tower in the dead of night to wrest control of Studio B television, Radio B2-92 and Index Radio from the opposition, which is trying to force the Yugoslav leader from power.
The police also padlocked the newsroom of Blic, Yugoslavia's largest-circulation independent newspaper, which has its offices in the same 23-story building in central Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia and of Serbia, its dominant republic.
"The scale of the amputation of public opinion here is far bigger than ever before," Veran Matic, founder of Radio B2-92 and head of Yugoslavia's independent media association, said in an interview. "This is an introduction to something far bigger."
The loss of the most important outlets for dissent against Milosevic stunned pro-democracy activists, who were left wondering whether street protests alone can reverse what the opposition called the president's decision to "enter into open dictatorship."
More than 20,000 protesters gathered Wednesday night in front of Belgrade City Hall after the media closures, a crowd much smaller than the opposition drew in the middle of winter. When drunken soccer fans joined in and began throwing stones and setting garbage cans on fire, several thousand marchers clashed briefly with riot police.
The opposition has called for more street protests today amid deepening public cynicism toward opposition leaders, many of whom are widely seen as corrupt and incompetent.
"I think opposition leaders long ago lost a sense of how serious the situation which we all find ourselves in really is," Matic said.
"If today they don't sober up and remove their personal antipathy and conflicts, no organized resistance will have any success," he said. "In that case, we will see a blitzkrieg by the regime, and all of us will be easy prey in various ways."
Blic is determined to keep publishing with the aid of its two main competitors, Glas Javnosti and Danas, which each agreed to publish four pages of reports by Blic writers each day.
Matic and his staff, whom Milosevic tried to silence during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 78-day bombing campaign a year ago, also fought back Wednesday. Within hours of the 2 a.m. raid by about 200 Serbian police, Radio B2-92 was transmitting over the Internet and over other Yugoslav radio stations.
Until Radio B2-92 finds another way to broadcast locally, it will transmit three daily newscasts over the Internet, Matic said. The British Broadcasting Corp. will pick up the programs and send them via satellite to 30 radio and 17 television stations across Yugoslavia, Matic said.
Police guarded a crew from the state-run Radio-Television Serbia who took the controls in Studio B and Radio B2-92. Every half an hour, an announcer read the government's order to shut down the independent stations.
In language reminiscent of Yugoslavia's Communist dictatorship of the past, the decree said Studio B on several occasions had made "a public call for violent destruction of legally and legitimately elected state authority."
The broadcasters also had "called upon citizens to launch an uprising against their own state and people with simultaneous calls for armed terrorists and criminal actions against the Republic of Serbia and its citizens," the decree said.
The seized TV station also broadcast video aimed at discrediting the opposition. It showed images of what police claim they found in the station, such as a full liquor cabinet; a license plate from Zagreb, Croatia; the door of a United Nations vehicle; and a poster from the student-led protest movement called Otpor, or Resistance.
The decree was signed by two Serbian deputy prime ministers: Vojislav Seselj, the Serbian Radical Party chief and a former paramilitary commander, and Milovan Bojic, a leader of the Yugoslav Left party, which is headed by Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic.
But few here had any doubt that Milosevic is the driving force behind the crackdown.
"After he was indicted on war crimes [charges] and put on The Hague [tribunal's] list, he lost his head," Milorad Roganovic, Studio B's program director for radio and television, said in an interview on the street outside his former office. "He belongs in an insane asylum more than in The Hague."
He added that the republic's government is considering taking over the administration of Belgrade and dozens of other municipalities that the opposition controls in Serbia, which together with Montenegro forms the Yugoslav federation.
"That would automatically mean the leaders of the opposition would be arrested," Matic said. "And that means open dictatorship."