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War of words escalates in Serbian capital

December 25, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Slobodan Milosevic’s supporters from the countryside called Wednesday for ``tough action″ against opposition demonstrators, and the Serbian president’s Socialist Party demanded they be punished.

Opposition leaders and students vowed to keep up their protests, but many wondered whether Milosevic would use Tuesday’s violence as an excuse to crush the opposition.

The clashes between government supporters and opponents left 58 people injured, including one man who suffered a gunshot wound. It was the worst violence in Serbia in five years.

There were no signs of a crackdown Wednesday as 100,000 protesters marched through Belgrade without incident, their 36th day in the streets.

Earlier in the day, 10,000 student marchers carried sponges, brooms and plastic bottles filled with soapy water to wash down the spot where Milosevic’s supporters rallied Tuesday. ``Arrest Slobo!″ they chanted.

The air vibrated with shrill whistles, and an occasional firecracker popped. While the mood was festive, marshals with walkie-talkies monitored the demonstration carefully to prevent any provocation.

``The idea is to have pressure from all sides,″ said Bojan Radinovic, 24, an agronomy student at Belgrade University, who blew a whistle as he slogged through the slush. ``We want to have authorities that can be replaced.″

The students addressed a letter to Milosevic on Wednesday, accusing him of bringing Belgrade ``to the edge of civil war.″

Opposition leaders claimed that Milosevic was planning to ban the pro-democracy protests. The government did not confirm that claim.

Still, Milosevic supporters demanded ``tough action″ against the demonstrators, saying they came to the capital ``to save Serbia and Belgrade″ from the opposition, but were greeted by ``hooligans″ hurling stones and eggs.

In a separate statement carried on state media, the ruling Socialist Party called for ``punishment of the perpetrators for their brutal attacks against peaceful citizens″ at the pro-Milosevic rally.

Police, in a statement read on state television late Wednesday night, warned that all rallies must be organized in accordance with regulations. One of those rules is that rallies cannot be held in the center of cities.

Milosevic all but programmed Tuesday’s street battle by urging government supporters to rally at the same site where the opposition has been protesting regularly since his annulment of opposition victories in the Nov. 17 elections.

Milosevic’s supporters and opponents clashed repeatedly and police weighed in with batons against the president’s detractors. A man shot by a gunner among Milosevic’s supporters remained in critical condition.

The president’s backers apparently were trying to orchestrate a groundswell of support for a crackdown. But it was doubtful how much they could drum up. Only about 50,000 took part in Tuesday’s pro-Milosevic rally. They were far outnumbered by the 300,000 opposition protesters.

Most of the Milosevic supporters _ elderly and blue-collar workers bused in from provincial towns _ appeared stunned by the level of opposition support.

Many have received news only from Serbia’s state-run TV, which has not offered a clear picture of the opposition and its demands. Milosevic has virtually ignored the protests _ the largest since he came to power in 1987.

A Socialist Party office in Nis, 150 miles south of Belgrade, was bombed overnight, police said. There were no injuries.

In a sign that Milosevic’s grip on power may be weakening, the prime minister of Montenegro _ Serbia’s junior partner in the Yugoslav federation _ warned on Wednesday that his republic would take steps to protect itself from further international isolation resulting from Milosevic’s policies.

The leadership of Montenegro has been sympathetic to the Serbian opposition since the protests began. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said Montenegro was prepared to conduct its own foreign policy if Serbia did not work harder to rejoin the international community, the Fonet independent news agency reported.

Even Moscow, long sympathetic to the Serbs, said it was seriously concerned about the growing tension.

``The current crisis can and must be overcome by means of a political dialogue involving all democratic forces,″ the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement Wednesday. ``Violence and actions provoking clashes and confrontation must be excluded.″

Milosevic triggered fighting in Bosnia in 1992 and supported Bosnian Serb nationalists throughout the nearly four-year war. He abandoned them in 1995, bowing to Western pressure and taking on the new role of peacemaker.