Serbian protesters arrested, warned Milosevic regime ends studied indifference, adopts harder line


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- In a bid to intimidate the huge crowds marching daily against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, police arrested a group of demonstrators yesterday and state television likened opposition leaders to Adolf Hitler.

Issuing an unusually harsh condemnation of a protest movement it has virtually ignored, television controlled by Milosevic accused demonstrators of using "pro-fascist hysteria and violence" to "introduce terrorism" onto the streets of Belgrade.

The commentary was accompanied by repeated footage showing a small group of demonstrators destroying government property and a warning from police headquarters that it will no longer tolerate illegal acts. All of the demonstrations, technically speaking, have been illegal.

The warning and the harsh language, coupled with the first reports of arrests in the protests, appeared to signal an imminent crackdown.

Until yesterday, Milosevic had officially ignored the biggest-ever sustained protests against his authoritarian rule.

Upping the ante

Independent media were largely gagged and state-controlled media had mostly ignored the unrest. But as international pressure mounted -- and as the largest crowd yet filled downtown Belgrade on Saturday -- Milosevic apparently decided up the ante.

Last night dozens of buses carrying police from southern Serbia were seen moving into Belgrade, which is the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia.

"They are trying to nibble away" at the protest movement, said Miodrag Perisic, vice president of the opposition Democratic Party. "They see the determination of the people who come out every night, and they are trying to play on the fears of the people."

A smaller crowd than on previous days turned out yesterday in Belgrade as the protests -- which began after Milosevic annulled the opposition's landslide victories in municipal elections -- entered their second week.

Up to 100,000 people braved a frigid mix of rain and snow to march through the capital on the 14th day of protests yesterday. Once again, they hurled eggs and firecrackers at the state television station and the Serbian Parliament building.

Struggling to maintain momentum, Milosevic's foes declared that they would take their movement to cities throughout the country.

Disobedience network

"We have decided to broaden the protests to another six or seven towns," said opposition leader Zoran Djindjic, at a rally in Nis, Serbia's second-largest city. "The network of protest and civil disobedience is taking hold. This is a test of legality, we are defending the principle of respecting the law."

Belgrade has long been an opposition stronghold. But Nis was a Milosevic bastion until it angrily turned against him because of the country's economic woes.

About half Serbia's workers are unemployed, and low wages have driven many into poverty.

The economy is suffering from the effects of mismanagement, corruption, and 3 1/2 years of economic sanctions imposed because Milosevic-instigated wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as the old Yugoslav federation broke up.

Djindjic's announcement over independent Index radio indicated that the opposition was intent on spreading the protests to other industrial cities where Milosevic has in the past enjoyed strong support.

So far, the protests have not attracted industrial workers in great numbers, despite their economic troubles. Students have been one of the main groups supporting the rallies.

Pub Date: 12/02/96

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