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Serb military surrenders to troop protest

A THOUSAND army reservists demanding back pay in the deepest Serb provinces does not sound like a recipe for making the regime of Slobo- dan Milosevic quake in its collective boots.

None the less, a crowd of angry soldiers in the southern Serbian town of Vranje hasforced the Yugoslav army into an embarrassing surrender. The commander of the Third Army, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, promised reservists this week that they will be paid within a fortnight. "He promised, but we don't believe him," said one soldier who took part in the protests.

In recent days, demobilised soldiers have protested outside the town hall. When the army refused to take their demands seriously, they blocked the motorway. At which point General Pavkovic suddenly appeared and showered them with promises of full pay.

Soldiers in other towns now seem likely to pick up on the example of Vranje. Given that the state coffers are empty, it is difficult to imagine that all the promises can be fulfilled.

The south has traditionally been a Milosevic stronghold. But a disproportionate number of those called up to fight in Kosovo came from the region. Trees, walls and lampposts in the centre of Vranje have death notices pinned to them.

The cheerful faces of now-dead young men - boys, sometimes still in their teens - gaze out at passers-by. This is a small place, where everybody knows everybody. If you walk through Vranje with a local, the conversation is peppered with "That was my friend", or "He went to my sister's school", as you pass the death notices. For Vranje and other towns in this area, the cost of the Kosovo war has been all too real.

There is anger that these young men died; anger that the survivors have not been paid; and anger that they fought in vain. Although Serb television news cannot admit it, Serbs perceive Kosovo as lost.

The regime stands accused of having made an arrangement to save its own skin. One of the most popular slogans of the demonstrators in Vranje was:"Why did you sell Kosovo?"

General Pavkovic acknowledged what the government still refuses to admit: that the Kosovo settlement was a bitter defeat. He described how the Serbs were forced to agree to Nato's demands.

"They said: `You take it or leave it. If you leave it, we'll start to bomb you, city by city.'" He complained that the Russians ("our friends") sent the same message, leaving the Serbs isolated. "The Russians didn't help us at all. They said: `Take it or leave it.' We had to accept this agreement." He added: "We know very well who sold Kosovo, and how it was sold."

The demonstrations here have not been directly political. The demand for money took precedence over the demand for the resignation of President Milosevic. But the two subjects are linked in people's minds.

Mr Milosevic is blamed for what has gone wrong. In the words of one young demobilised soldier in a cafe on Vranje's main street: "He sold the Serb Krajina [in Croatia], he sold Bosnia, now he has sold Kosovo. He has ruined the state." Vukasin Obradovic, editor of Vranjske Novine, believes more Serbs are aware of the reality of Kosovo than they care to admit. "Most Serbs know what happened in Kosovo before Nato came," he said. "They know what crimes were committed, because the people who come here from Kosovo - army and refugees - say what happened."

In Leskovac, up the road from Vranje, locals demonstrate daily to demand the release from jail of the television technician who, by illegally broadcasting an appeal on TV, triggered the biggest demonstration that Serbia has yet seen.

The demands of the crowds in Leskovac include the release of the technician and the sacking of Mr Milosevic's local henchman; only in third place comes the demand for the resignation of Mr Milosevic himself.

Unorganised demonstrations have proved more successful than protests organised by Serbia's political parties. The opposition Democratic Party, led by Zoran Djindjic, scheduled a protest for last night in the industrial town of Kragujevac.

Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, will hold a rally in the town tomorrow night. But for the Miloseviv regime, the angry reservists of Vranje are a much more worrying prospect than opposition politicians from Belgrade who spend their time trying to strangle each other.

If the army does not pay up in the weeks to come, the problems of popular anger will only get worse - even if the opposition leaders sit on their hands at home.