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TURMOIL IN YUGOSLAVIA

Protesters Seize Yugoslav Parliament

Police Give Way; Opposition Claims Victory Over Milosevic President's whereabouts are unknown. Hundreds of thousands pour into Belgrade before Kostunica takes control.

October 06, 2000|PAUL WATSON and ZORAN CIRJAKOVIC | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — In what appears to be the final and fatal blow to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime, angry protesters seized control Thursday of the federal parliament building and state-run television station here as police fled and soldiers joined celebrations in the street.

Serbian police, once fiercely loyal to Milosevic, offered only scattered resistance as hundreds of thousands of protesters joined in the most serious attack on Milosevic's regime since he took power 13 years ago.

After state-run television fell under opposition control, Vojislav Kostunica, a soft-spoken former law professor who is the unlikely leader of Yugoslavia's stunning uprising, appeared on the air to claim the presidency.

"What we are doing today is making history," Kostunica told several hundred thousand supporters in an evening speech from the balcony of City Hall, across a square from the federal parliament building. "We call on the military and police to do everything to ensure a peaceful transition of power."

Milosevic's whereabouts were not known in the early morning hours today. Half a dozen lights were on at the White Palace, his official residence in Belgrade, but police officers normally on guard outside were not present. Only one officer was outside Milosevic's private residence nearby.

Opposition leaders said Milosevic and loyal troops had fled to a bunker in the village of Beljanica, about 25 miles west of the town of Bor near the Romanian border, though their assertion could not be independently verified.

Supporters of Kostunica stayed in the streets through the night to protect what they saw as a final victory for freedom and to repulse any effort by the regime to reassert power. The state-run Tanjug news service, which had gone over to the opposition, reported that two people were killed and 65 injured.

A few acts of revenge reportedly were carried out against Milosevic supporters. In the southern town of Leskovac, protesters looted and set fire to the house of a local leader of his Socialist Party, the independent Beta news agency reported. And witnesses to the takeover of the state television complex said its director and news editor were beaten.

Meanwhile, signs were everywhere that the props of Milosevic's regime--the police, the army and the state-run media--were no longer under his complete control.

As protesters partied in the streets, some drunk and shooting handguns in celebration, police were nowhere to be seen.

"We've got promises and guarantees from the top of the military that there will be no military intervention," Vladan Batic, leader of the Christian Democratic Party, a member of Kostunica's alliance, said in an interview after meeting with other coalition partners in City Hall. "We were also in contact with Belgrade police headquarters, and they promised they will not intervene."

Army generals reportedly were meeting in Belgrade, but there was no statement from them as of late Thursday.

Asked if the more ruthless Interior Ministry police also were backing the opposition, Batic replied: "I don't know if that institution still exists. The regime does not have command and control over the police."

Then he added, half-joking: "We're expecting Milosevic has been arrested any minute."

Just minutes after he was interviewed, Batic supervised the unloading of a truckload of Kalashnikov assault rifles, sniper rifles and other firearms that apparently had been seized from the police.

A video broadcast by an independent television station showed at least half a dozen soldiers smiling and chatting with jubilant protesters as they milled about in the street. One of the soldiers let a young woman wear his camouflaged helmet.

In the early hours today, five uniformed Serbian police appeared with opposition supporters at City Hall. They wore white strips of cloth over their badges of rank, seen here as a sign that their units are now allied with Kostunica.

In his address on state television, Kostunica promised what Serbia's people have been waiting for during the past eight years: Crippling international economic sanctions would be lifted, at least according to officials Kostunica said he had spoken to in the French government Thursday night.

Other Western governments, including the U.S., aren't likely to be so quick to declare an end to sanctions, at least not while the fate of Milosevic, who has been indicted on war crimes charges by an international tribunal in The Hague, is unclear.

Kostunica, a more moderate nationalist than many in Serbia, repeated in the interview his previous vow that he will not hand over Milosevic to the tribunal.

Nonetheless, numerous international leaders were quick Thursday to give their support to Yugoslavia's opposition.

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