Police Halt Yugoslav Protest Push
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Riot police fired tear gas Thursday at protesters trying to force their way into the federal parliament building as tens of thousands streamed into the capital by car, bus and on foot for a mass rally intended as the final push against President Slobodan Milosevic.
Thousands more joined smaller rallies in towns throughout the country. In the third largest city, Nis, about 10,000 people tried to push their way into the local office of Milosevic’s party but were persuaded by opposition leaders not to give police a reason to attack them.
Opposition leaders summoned their followers from throughout the country to march on Belgrade and gave Milosevic until 3 p.m. to step aside in favor of Vojislav Kostunica, who claims victory in the Sept. 24 presidential race.
``This flame will engulf the whole of Belgrade,″ said Vladan Batic, an opposition leader.
By early afternoon, downtown Belgrade was a mass of people, many streaming toward the parliament building and blocking traffic as they did so.
Many wore paper caps with the slogan, ``We’ll Endure.″ They moved past shops, some shut down with signs stating, ``Closed because of Robbery″ _ an allusion to opposition claims that Milosevic stole the elections.
Some state-run stores, prohibited from shutting down in anti-Milosevic protest, did so nonetheless, but under the cover of taking inventory.
Tensions were running high after the Milosevic-controlled Yugoslav Constitutional Court issued a ruling Wednesday which one justice, Milutin Srdic, said nullified the Sept. 24 election.
The government acknowledged Kostunica outpolled Milosevic but fell short of a majority in the five-candidate race. A run-off had been set for Sunday, but Srdic said that second round had been canceled through the court ruling.
By Thursday afternoon, the court had issued no statement beyond a brief dispatch by the state-run Tanjug news agency, which said ``part″ of the election had been annulled. Srdic told Radio Free Europe that the entire election result had been thrown out and a new vote would be required.
In the meantime, Srdic told Radio Free Europe, Milosevic could remain in office through his term which expires in July.
The opposition said it had not been officially notified of the ruling. However, opposition legal expert Nebojsa Bakarec dismissed the decision as the latest ``in a series of unconstitutional moves″ by Milosevic ``to manipulate the electoral will of the people.″
As crowds converged on Belgrade, about 10,000 cheering protesters massed in front of the federal parliament building, and a group of them tried to push their way into the building.
They were driven back by helmeted police who fired tear gas. Hospitals said 10 people were treated for light injuries.
In what the opposition hoped was a further sign the regime was crumbling, more than 160 employees of Serbian state television _ a major pillar of Milosevic’s power _ were fired Thursday after going on strike.
Most were technicians and staff of nonpolitical programs. Most Milosevic loyalists remained, and kept the network on the air.
Elsewhere, police in Subotica near the Hungarian border arrested a student activist, triggering a protest rally Thursday by about 10,000 people in the main town square.
Police had set up roadblocks outside Belgrade, but the convoys of protesters were so large that most of them were allowed to pass. A convoy of about 2,000 people was briefly blocked near the town of Smederevska Palanka about 30 miles south of Belgrade, but eventually pushed their way through barricades.
Protesters used a front-end loader to shove aside two sand trucks used by authorities to try to block a 12-mile line of cars and buses with about 15,000 people traveling from the opposition stronghold of Cacak. Riot police stood by without intervening.
At another roadblock, trucks were pushed away and demonstrators negotiated with a police commander to be allowed through. At yet another blockade, angry protesters overturned a police car and dumped it into a ditch.
Several thousand people were marching toward Belgrade from the industrial city of Pancevo, six miles north of the capital.
The mass march on Belgrade followed a day of dramatic developments at the strikebound Kolubara coal mine in which police were forced to abandon plans to take over the compound after confronting fearless anti-Milosevic crowds.
Such defiance in the face of police was unprecedented in Yugoslavia’s 55-year communist history.