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Cars clog city streets in pro-democracy traffic jam

January 5, 1997

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Thousands of opposition supporters drove their cars downtown Sunday to create horn-blowing, alarm-wailing, pro-democracy gridlock _ a sarcastic taunt at authorities who banned street marches citing traffic concerns.

Drivers honked, triggered car alarms, and faked engine problems or accidents, all the while demanding that police keep traffic moving.

Police imposed a ban 10 days ago on street marches, citing disruption of traffic.

Opposition supporters, who for nearly seven weeks have been protesting President Slobodan Milosevic’s refusal to concede defeat in local elections, had been forced to stick to a pedestrian mall since then.

Drivers of halted cars chanted ``We need police help.″ But hundreds of riot police did not respond, remaining inside their buses parked on adjacent streets.

``Where are they now?″ asked taxi driver Bane Jankovic. ``They said they will help the traffic flow, but it seems it wasn’t true.″

``We are unbeatable,″ said Jelena Misic as she drove slowly in her sub-compact Fiat. ``They cannot kill our protest, not even with the police.″

People flocking to shake hands with one of Serbia’s most popular opposition figures, Dragoslav Avramovic, caused even more chaos in the city center. Avramovic joined the protesters for the first time Sunday.

Avramovic said he was adding his voice to the protests ``so Serbia can return to the world, so we can become normal people.″

Avramovic was fired as chief of the national bank in May after he criticized Milosevic’s Communist-style economic policies. He then helped found the opposition coalition Zajedno, or Together, and was expected to be a strong candidate in the Nov. 3 elections for the federal parliament.

But the 78-year-old Avramovic, called ``Super Grandpa″ by his supporters, dropped out in October citing health problems, which also kept him from the protests.

Milosevic and his allies won the parliamentary election. But when the three-party Zajedno coalition appeared to win the Nov. 17 runoffs for local offices in most large cities, including Belgrade, Milosevic had the results annulled.

The subsequent street protests have become the biggest challenge to Milosevic in his nine years in power.

His refusal to concede electoral defeat has begun to draw fire from more than just the opposition and Western leaders.

Serbian Orthodox Church leaders issued a sharply worded criticism last week, and the mayor of Belgrade, a close ally of Milosevic, reportedly resigned in protest over the weekend.

The opposition released a letter Sunday appealing to police to join the protesters.

``Do not let the Socialist thieves abuse you and pit you into conflict with the people who live difficult lives just as you do,″ the letter said.

Taking advantage of the traffic chaos, tens of thousands marched again on Belgrade streets, booing, whistling and chanting ``Red Bandits″ as they passed government buildings and state television headquarters.

Later, opposition leaders told some 30,000 people who braved the cold and heavy rain that they would call for the blockade of roads all over Serbia unless Milosevic backs down within three or four days.

``This is only the beginning,″ opposition leader Zoran Djindjic said.

Protesters were to march Monday _ the Serbian Orthodox Christmas Eve _ to one of the main Belgrade churches for joint celebrations.

``This is our complete victory,″ said Mirjana Bobic, a well-known journalist. ``Belgrade will never be the same again as (the Communists) must fall in a week, or a month. It doesn’t matter when, but they are doomed.″

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