SREMSKA MITROVICA,Yugoslavia (AP) _ They're doing time for murder, armed robbery and other violent crimes. But the inmates at the core of prison riots that threatened Yugoslavia's new pro-democracy government with anarchy say the real criminals still haven't been punished.

And it isn't difficult to know whom they're talking about. Like most Serbians, the thousands of inmates who rioted demanding reduced sentences and better conditions say the real bad guys were linked to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, the ousted strongman-president.

``We are guilty,'' declared Milan Jeremic, one of those who negotiated the convicts' demands. ``But we are small fish, compared to the real criminals and Mafiosi, who robbed the whole nation.''

Jeremic was one of the leaders of the prisoners' uprising that started at Sremska Mitrovica prison Sunday. Over the next three days it spread to four other correctional centers, including some of the biggest detention centers in Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.

Buildings were burned, shots fired, rapes reported and one person killed. The violence ended early Wednesday after government negotiators agreed to the main demands in exchange for a pledge of a return to normality.

Although inmates continued to have the run of the prisons, plans were to slowly permit guards back in, starting Friday, the inmates said. If that happened, Serbia's justice ministry pledged to expand a law originally meant to grant amnesty to ethnic Albanian political prisoners jailed during the Kosovo conflict. It would now include sentence reductions for Serbs jailed for some types of nonpolitical crimes.

Resentment of Milosevic and his cronies grew during his 13 years in power, with growing perceptions that his clique was growing richer even as poverty enveloped Serbia because of his ruinous economic policies and the Balkan wars he fomented.

With Milosevic's ouster last month after he lost presidential elections, the administration of his successor, Vojislav Kostunica, has started investigations against Milosevic, his family and friends on suspicion they bilked the country of billions of dollars. Other close associates are suspected of involvement in political murders.

No wonder that Jeremic and his pals feel they deserve some consideration.

``We don't ask to be released,'' said Jeremic, as other grim-faced convicts nodded, arms crossed over beefy chests clad in prison garb of rough homespun wool. ``But we committed crimes in a regime where ... the state of law didn't exist.

``We ask for just a bit of forgiveness.''

He and others detailed mindless torture under chief warden Trivun Ivkovic, a 1994 Milosevic appointee arrested Wednesday. One inmate, chained to his bed for 12 days for fighting, tried to bite through his wrists as soon as he was unlocked, in a desperate suicide bid, said convict Dragan Drovnjik.

Inmate Sasa Jokic said guards swung baseball bats at will at prisoners. Food was horrid, medical care next to nonexistent.

Ivkovic was fired soon after Kostunica took office last month, raising hopes that conditions would soon improve, ``but even afterward, the mistreatment continued,'' said Jokic's buddy, Dragan Dimitrovic. That's when ringleaders decided to riot.

Despite the calm at Sremska Mitrovica, Nis and Pozarevac, the protests were not over. Hundreds of inmates at Padinska Skela prison just outside Belgrade and at a juvenile detention center in the central Serbian town of Valjevo joined in Wednesday, refusing to go on work detail and in some cases declaring hunger strikes.

Ahead of crucial elections in Serbia, the unrest presented a new challenge to Kostunica. His administration must move carefully, allowing the release of some frustration pent up under Milosevic's rule, without letting the country slide into anarchy.

Although Kostunica and his supporters control the federal government, whoever controls Serbia effectively controls Yugoslavia. While Kostunica supporters are the overwhelming favorites six weeks ahead of the Dec. 23 vote, the prison unrest could bolster the popularity of Milosevic's Socialists, who argue that lawlessness is spreading under Kostunica.

The unrest was triggered last week in part by reports that authorities were considering amnesty for about 900 Kosovo Albanian prisoners, two-thirds of them jailed on charges of terrorism during the government crackdown on their independence movement in Serbia's southern province of Kosovo. Angered Serb convicts claimed discrimination.