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Kostunica Thanks Striking Workers

October 10, 2000

MEDOSEVAC, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Yugoslavia’s new president climbed down into the Kolubara coal pits here Tuesday to thank the miners whose strike last week ignited a popular revolt that ended Slobodan Milosevic’s 13-year rule.

One miner, Milorad Simic, said Tuesday was the climax of his life _ the day President Vojislav Kostunica descended the slopes of this surface mine to shake his hand.

``No president had ever taken the trouble to climb down here,″ said Simic, 56, as he posed with Kostunica next to a gigantic scoop used to haul coal from the ground.

Kostunica traveled 30 miles to the vast pits of Kolubara to express his gratitude to the hundreds of miners whose protest led to riots in the capital, Belgrade, last Thursday and to Milosevic’s ouster. ``Without you, it is a big question whether any of this would have been possible,″ Kostunica told miners and their families gathered outside the pit.

Some 7,000 miners at Kolubara went on strike shortly after presidential elections Sept. 24 to demand that Milosevic recognize Kostunica as the winner.

Milosevic’s special police surrounded the mine for several days. Officials cut back on electrical supplies to cities and towns across Yugoslavia, blaming the miners. But when police attempted to take over the mine, Kostunica came in person to rally the miners, and the strikers prevailed.

The new Yugoslav leader _ a law school professor turned reluctant revolutionary _ returned Tuesday to the same complex, arriving in a cloud of coal dust at the heart of the mine.

The bumpy trek along a three-mile dirt road covered by coal debris wound through immense piles of dross and troughs with lumps of coal channeled out of the pit. The president didn’t seem to notice the grittiness.

Kostunica also rushed to tell the miners in person the ``good news″ that France would grant the miners $150,000 in aid, as French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine had announced earlier.

``You see, the whole world knows about Kolubara,″ Kostunica said as dozens of miners huddled around him.

``Much in this country has come to a halt, but we brought democracy through peaceful means and we will have a peaceful transition government,″ Kostunica pledged as the miners clapped and cheered.

Also Tuesday, the Kolubara mine’s three former government officials _ all Milosevic appointees _ resigned after negotiations with the miners’ strike committee in Belgrade, said Radosav Milic, one of the strike leaders. Milic said the mine’s expectations were great, although the top mine salary is the equivalent of $150 a month and the surrounding towns and villages are dependent on Kolubara.

As Kostunica left the pits, the miners clapped and shouted: ``Take care of yourself, Mr. President!″

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