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Yugoslav Protesters Block Traffic

October 2, 2000

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Truck and taxi drivers blockaded roads and bridges, students stayed home and factories closed throughout Yugoslavia on Monday as opposition forces launched a drive to force President Slobodan Milosevic from office.

With the most extensive strikes ever waged against Milosevic, his foes have vowed to bring the nation to a standstill. But the buildup was cautious, raising questions about whether the opposition has the momentum and stamina to carry out its threats.

Less than a week remains before Sunday’s scheduled runoff election. Milosevic says challenger Vojislav Kostunica failed to achieve an outright victory in Sept. 24 elections and a second round is needed. The opposition, backed by the West, insists Milosevic rigged the voting.

Kostunica branded Monday’s protest actions as a ``quiet and smart democratic revolution.″

``People are ready to start building a new country,″ Kostunica said. ``Milosevic has been ousted in the elections, but someone has to tell him that.″

Meanwhile, Russia on Monday resisted Western pressure to call on Milosevic to concede electoral defeat.

President Vladimir Putin said he was willing to receive both Milosevic and Kostunica in Moscow to ``discuss ways of resolving the situation.″ But Putin left Monday for a four-day visit to India, suggesting no meeting on the Yugoslav situation was likely before the runoff.

In Yugoslavia, road blockades snarled traffic on one bridge in the capital, Belgrade, for about three hours, while city transit workers staged a two-hour walkout. At one intersection, protesters stood in pouring rain to link hands and form a human chain after police broke up a blockade of four trucks.

``We’ll remain here as long as possible. We have no other option until Milosevic leaves power voluntarily,″ said Nebojsa Zdravkovic, a teacher. ``If they want to use force against us, let them.″

The blockade appeared stronger in cities and towns outside Belgrade, bringing life to a virtual standstill in the central and southern industrial heartland towns like Nis, Cacak, Pancevo and Uzice.

Cedomir Jovanovic, spokesman for the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, reported several incidents caused by police at the blockades in the capital. Four people were injured in a clash with police in Surcin, about 12 miles west of the capital.

Dozens of trams and buses lined up in Slavija square and the surrounding streets in Belgrade. Hundreds of cars also lined up around Autokomanda, a major intersection, as people struggled to move. Most taxis also refused to operate.

Traffic and special police were present, trying to break the blockade by impounding license plates from private cars and driving away parked buses or trucks.

Another road blockade effectively sealed off the opposition-run town of Cacak in central Yugoslavia early Monday. By 5 a.m., about 70 truck drivers completely jammed the road outside the industrial town of 80,000 people.

A local police patrol briefly attempted to take the license plate of one of the truckers. They found themselves outnumbered and surrounded, however, and quickly handed it back.

``We are waging a battle,″ Mayor Velimir Ilic told about 10,000 opposition supporters gathered at Cacak’s main square for an eighth consecutive day Monday. ``If we lose, all we can expect is misery and poverty.″

Taxi drivers joined the truckers, some arriving at the blockade carrying bread and yogurt for drivers who had parked on the city outskirts.

In Nis, the third largest Yugoslav city and its main industrial zone, about 10,000 workers walked out from their jobs. All shops and schools stopped work and people gathered at the main square.

In Belgrade, about 10,000 university and high school students rallied in one of the biggest anti-Milosevic student protests in the capital in nearly four years.

And in the southwestern town of Uzice, railway workers walked off the job and thousands of industrial workers joined them, cutting off the country’s main north-south railway link.

A close Milosevic supporter, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, accused opposition groups of seeking ``chaos, clashes and unrest.″ The republics of Serbia and Western-oriented Montenegro make up what remains of Yugoslavia.

Milosevic has so far held the military and police in check. There were fears, however, he could be running out of options as some vital industries, such as coal mines, join the opposition ranks.

The independent Beta news agency reported that 500 policemen entered the Kolubara mine, the nation’s largest, late Sunday. The action could be an attempt to thwart sabotage at the mine, about 25 miles south of Belgrade, where thousands of workers have walked out.

Serbia’s electric company urged coal miners to return to work immediately, saying power restrictions would be imposed that could ``endanger people’s health and lives (and) cause an ecological catastrophe.″

The leader of the Kolubara strikers, Miodrag Rankovic, said the warnings were simply an attempt to pressure the miners and the system could operate without Kolubara.

Only essential public services were operating in several cities.

``They are sending a strong message to Milosevic: `Your time in office is over,‴ said U.S. National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley in Washington.

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