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Serbs Mark NATO Attack Anniversary

March 25, 2000

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Several thousand Serbs, many waving posters of President Slobodan Milosevic, rallied across Yugoslavia on Friday to mark the first anniversary of the start of the NATO air campaign.

Turnout, however, was far lower than the 100,000 expected by authorities, and for many Milosevic’s claims of victory rang hollow in a country where conditions have only declined since the severe damage from the airstrikes.

``What are you celebrating?″ a driver caught in a traffic jam shouted at the runners participating in a race held for the occasion. ``You better run from this miserable country, rather than for Milosevic!″

Opposition parties and many Belgrade residents said the celebrations, which included the marathon race past the ruins of buildings targeted in the bombing, were inappropriate _ even bizarre.

``The defeats can be celebrated only by those who have not had enough of the death and misfortune of this poor nation,″ said the leading opposition Serbian Renewal party.

About 5,000 people, mostly government supporters, attended a state-sponsored rally in Belgrade to mark March 24, 1999 _ the date NATO began 78 days of airstrikes aimed at ending Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Similar rallies were held throughout the country.

Some 2,000 Serbs in neighboring Macedonia’s capital Skopje also rallied against NATO and burned pictures of U.S. flags and Swastikas. Also in Greece, where resentment against NATO was high during the air campaign, 2,000 people marched to the U.S. consulate in the northern city of Thessaloniki, chanting ``NATO terrorists.″ The march ended peacefully.

Some demonstrators at a Belgrade rally and rock ‘n’ roll concert carried pictures of Milosevic, while others held banners reading: ``Slobo, You Are Chosen By God To Defend the Serbs.″ Pictures of Gen. Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander and a U.N. court war crimes suspect, were also defiantly displayed.

Yet the mood among participants was subdued and lacked the energy of similar protests held at the same place daily during the NATO bombing campaign.

Top government officials laid flowers and wreaths on the ruins, including the former Chinese Embassy hit by a bomb in what NATO said was an accident.

In the northern city of Novi Sad, some 2,000 Serbs lit candles in memory of those killed in the strikes and set them by the ruins of a Danube bridge destroyed by NATO.

At a rally held by the state-run trade union in Belgrade, union president Tomislav Banovic told NATO to ``go home, and peacefully leave our land.″

Zoran Djindjic, another opposition leader, said that instead of protesting low salaries in Yugoslavia _ which amount to no more than $50 and ``which workers in the West can earn in an hour″ _ the state trade union is ``celebrating ‘the victory’ against NATO.″

``The regime has proclaimed the start of the bombing as its brightest moment, while ordinary people consider it a nightmare,″ Djindjic said. ``That says enough about the nature of this regime.″

Despite public disaffection, Milosevic’s grip on power remains unshaken a year after the bombing campaign destroyed all of the country’s oil refineries and crippled key bridges, factories and homes.

Yugoslavia’s divided opposition has failed to mount a serious challenge to his rule or to respond to a growing crackdown on dissent and economic downfall.

Only some 100 yards from the state rally on Belgrade’s Republic Square, an anti-Milosevic student group _ Otpor, or Resistance, distributed leaflets calling people to ``resist the regime.″

``This is not a system, this is a disease,″ said one of the leaflets. ``Bite the system, long live the resistance.″ Police briefly detained 17 student activists at rallies throughout Serbia, and one was severely beaten, Otpor said.

The NATO bombing campaign forced Milosevic to withdraw his forces and hand Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province, over to NATO peacekeepers and U.N. administrators.


On the Net: Yugoslav government site: http://www.juga.com/

University College London School of Slavic and East European Studies site: http://www.ssees.ac.uk/yugoslav.htm

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