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Milosevic promises to investigate election fraud, 200,000 rally

December 17, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Facing the biggest in a month of anti-government protests, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic tried to ease the pressure on him Tuesday by meeting with some demonstrators and promising to investigate charges of electoral fraud.

About 200,000 people took to the street in Belgrade as workers, who had stood on the sidelines for weeks, finally joined the crowds of students and opposition supporters who have been demonstrating daily against the annulment of Nov. 17 election results.

Milosevic met with a group of student protesters who had walked 150 miles to give the longtime Serb leader documents that they said proved the opposition had won the elections.

While Milosevic has defended the election process as fair, he has publicly distanced himself from the election commissions and courts that overturned opposition victories in 17 cities housing two-thirds of Serbia’s people.

In recent days, the opposition’s hopes have risen since authorities reversed themselves and restored opposition victories in Nis, the southern city where the students came from, and in Smederevska Palanka, 30 miles outside Belgrade.

Despite Milosevic’s promise, pressure on the street grew. About 1,000 workers joined opposition supporters and students to protest the annulment of opposition victories in Belgrade and elsewhere. Tuesday’s crowd was the largest in four weeks.

The workers who joined Tuesday’s protests carried banners declaring: ``Slobo Demon″ and ``Peace, Bread.″

``Milosevic should know that it is hard to get workers out of their factories, but it is even harder to get them back in,″ warned one of the workers, Dragan Matic.

Workers, who traditionally have formed the backbone of Milosevic’s support, have generally stayed away from the protests. Their participation in large numbers would markedly increase the pressure on Milosevic.

The three students who met Milosevic gave him documentation they said showed that election results in Nis were falsified.

``He promised to punish all those who have breached the law,″ said Predrag Cveticanin, who met Milosevic in his office for 20 minutes.

``Whoever came to this building to seek truth did not go out without finding it,″ Milosevic told the students, according to a statement issued by his office.

Milosevic told the Justice Ministry to thoroughly examine the students’ submitted documentation and publish its findings, the Tanjug news agency reported.

State TV, which is controlled by Milosevic and has all but ignored the protests except to condemn them, broadcast the part of the meeting where Milosevic sought to convey his innocence and promised justice in the election.

Milosevic told the students they had ``secured legality″ by coming to him.

``Neither you nor I count the votes,″ he added. ``All mistakes are possible.″

Opposition leader Zoran Djindjic was skeptical.

``I would say his are just empty words,″ Djindjic said. ``Is it possible that the president needs students to remind him of his constitutional duties?″

The capital is the most contested city in the election and the one Milosevic most wants to control.

Student Nikola Bozinovic said demonstrators insisted in the meeting that the opposition be given back its victory in Belgrade. But Milosevic didn’t respond, he said.

Milosevic, in an apparent bid to alleviate international pressure, invited a delegation of the trans-Atlantic Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to review the situation.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez will lead the high-level delegation.

But Milosevic also remained defiant, saying Serbia should not ``bow it’s head to anyone.″

``Serbia will not be ruled by a foreign hand,″ he said.

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