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Thousands mourn first victim of Belgrade political standoff

December 28, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ As a brass band played, at least 10,000 opposition protesters grieved Saturday at the burial of the first person killed in demonstrations against the government of Slobodan Milosevic.

Afterward, mourners marched into the streets leading from Belgrade’s main cemetery, blowing whistles and small horns as they have during the past six weeks of protests. The victim, 39-year-old Predrag Starcevic, died Tuesday from a beating by Milosevic supporters.

Protests have continued daily since Milosevic annulled the results of Nov. 17 local elections that opposition candidates had won. On Friday, the 38th day of protests, international mediators in Geneva urged Milosevic to concede defeat. He has not done so.

The protests pose the biggest challenge to Milosevic since he rose to power nine years ago, and the authoritarian president has seemed intent on crushing them, at the risk of losing international support.

No police were visible during the post-funeral march, but in downtown Belgrade, riot police formed tight ranks to prevent 15,000 students from leaving a pedestrian zone for their daily march through the city.

The front line of students stood about 15 yards from helmeted police carrying shields. Other students walked in circles, with their hands behind their heads, as if they were in a prison yard.

``The cordon is their only answer to everything,″ Cedomir Mihajlovic, a student organizers, told independent Radio Index.

The students called for the resignation of Serbian Interior Minister Zoran Sokolovic, saying that he was ``the most responsible″ for police behavior. In an open letter to the Serbian and Yugoslav interior ministers, 41 Belgrade University law professors protested the police’s ``over-reaction″ to protests.

The premier of Montenegro, Serbia’s tiny partner in the Yugoslav federation, sent a message of support to Belgrade students on Saturday. ``Montenegro has always supported pro-democracy tendencies and is now supporting you,″ Premier Milo Djukanovic said in his message.

Also Saturday, domestic support for the protesters spread to the head of Serbia’s Orthodox church, and hundreds of leading intellectuals.

In an early message for Orthodox Christmas, celebrated on Jan. 7, Patriarch Pavle urged a peaceful solution and acceptance of the elections.

``The respect of law and justice obliges us all to respect the freely expressed will of people, to prevent autocracy and violence that never can and never will bring any good to people and state,″ Pavle said.

Hundreds of writers, artists, doctors and other intellectuals signed a petition declaring their opposition to Milosevic’s regime, which they called a ``totalitarian system _ the last of its kind in Europe.″ The Fonet independent news agency published the petition as an open letter.

Serbia’s middle class has dwindled as five years of war drove many professionals and young men into exile and draft-dodging. The petition indicated that many people once wary of the opposition have now come out against Milosevic.

At the funeral Saturday, opposition leaders Vuk Draskovic, Zoran Djindjic and Vesna Pesic walked slowly behind the black hearse, with the victim’s widow, 10 Orthodox priests and about 50 mourners carrying wreaths.

``One day, when Belgrade becomes the way you wanted it to be, a street will be named after you,″ Draskovic said, addressing the deceased.

On Friday, about 60,000 opposition supporters defied riot police to rally in celebration of the report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which upheld their electoral triumph.

The OSCE said the opposition coalition Zajedno, or ``Together,″ won elections in 13 communities, including Serbia’s second-largest city of Nis, and in nine districts of Belgrade.

In an indication Milosevic would ignore the group’s findings, the electoral commission said it will call for new elections for 17 city council seats in Nis, originally won by the opposition but later given to the ruling party.

Draskovic said that was unacceptable. ``No reruns, no repetition of elections there where we won,″ he told a news conference.

Doctors from Belgrade’s main hospital said 18 people sought treatment after Milosevic’s police clubbed small groups of protesters after rallies ended Friday. At least three people were arrested.

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