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Clinton Lauds Serbs' 'March of Freedom'

Balkans: U.S. says it won't help Milosevic flee. World leaders look ahead to a new Yugoslavia.


WASHINGTON — Sensing imminent victory over one of his most implacable foes, President Clinton said Thursday that the Serbian people are poised to "take back their country," leaving Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic no way to maintain his hold on power.

"In Serbia, where a decade ago the forces of destruction began their march across the Balkans, now the march of freedom is gaining new ground," Clinton said in a speech at Princeton University. "The people of Serbia have spoken with their ballots, they have spoken on the streets. I hope the hour is near when their voices will be heard and we can welcome them to democracy, to Europe, to the world's community."

After a day in which anti-Milosevic protesters seized the parliament building, state television and the government news agency in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, and police largely stood aside or joined the opposition, Clinton and his aides were jubilant. They brushed aside suggestions that the United States might hasten Milosevic's departure by finding him a comfortable retirement home.

"What country would find some interest in having him around?" one Clinton administration official asked rhetorically, noting that Milosevic has been indicted for war crimes.

There is ample precedent for U.S. efforts to defuse crises by assisting beleaguered dictators to flee. But administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said there was no need to cut Milosevic any slack.

"It is over," one official said. Another official would not go that far, cautioning that "Slobo has escaped in various ways before."

But world leaders seemed to be looking ahead to post-Milosevic Yugoslavia. Just a day before, the focus had been on finding some way to induce him to yield power.

On Wednesday, Jiri Dienstbier, the United Nations special envoy for human rights in the region, said: "The only possible deal, and the most important thing for Mr. Milosevic, is to have guarantees that if he leaves power he will not be prosecuted and will not spend the rest of his life in prison."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan quickly rebuked Dienstbier and said Milosevic must stand trial for war crimes.

On Thursday, some U.S. officials even suggested that it might be better for Milosevic to surrender to the U.N. tribunal in The Hague--which cannot impose the death penalty--rather than face mob justice.

"In the Balkans, the rule of law is not deeply entrenched," one official said. "If the mob gets him first, all deals are off."

Although opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica, the apparent winner over Milosevic in last month's disputed election, has sought to distance himself from the United States, he could not escape Washington's embrace Thursday.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, returning to Washington from the Middle East, told reporters aboard her aircraft that demonstrators in Yugoslavia "want Belgrade to be Kostunica's, and we support Kostunica's victory."

Albright and White House National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger both said they would attempt to persuade Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to recognize Kostunica's victory. So far, Russia has not done that. Putin said Thursday: "We are ready to contribute to [Yugoslavia] overcoming the current crisis, coming out of international isolation and putting itself firmly on the path of democratic development."

The United States and most European countries have made it clear that the only way Yugoslavia can end its isolation is to get rid of Milosevic.

In Paris, Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said the 15-nation European Union, of which France holds the rotating presidency, would lift sanctions against Yugoslavia on Monday on the assumption that "Mr. Kostunica now embodies legal power in Serbia."

The Clinton administration has promised to lift sanctions if Kostunica takes power, but officials said the new regime must first be clearly in control.

In the U.S. presidential campaign, both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush hailed the demonstrations in Belgrade and called on Milosevic to yield power.

"The people will not be denied," Gore said. "He has to leave. . . . Milosevic has the ability to reduce the risk and save many lives by bowing to the inevitable and by recognizing the undeniably expressed will of the Serbian people."

"The people have spoken," Bush said. "It is time for Mr. Milosevic to go. Our country must work with our allies in Europe and the international community, including Russia, to pressure Mr. Milosevic to leave office."

Both Gore and Bush ruled out the use of U.S. troops in Yugoslavia. So did Clinton. And most European leaders insisted that their troops will not be needed either.

Asked at a Thursday morning event in the White House Rose Garden whether the United States would use military force if Milosevic ordered Yugoslav troops to fire on demonstrators, Clinton said: "I don't believe that it's an appropriate case for military intervention. And I don't believe that the United States should say or do anything which would only strengthen Mr. Milosevic's hand."

He added, "I think if the world community will just stand . . . for freedom, stand for democracy, stand for the will of the people, I think that will prevail."

Times staff writers Maggie Farley at the United Nations, Jim Mann and Robin Wright in Washington, and James Gerstenzang and Michael Finnegan in Michigan contributed to this report.

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