Alarm bells toll for Milosevic

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Belgrade - Serbia's pro-democracy movement has planned a New Year's Eve extravaganza of rallies and parties with alarm clocks set to ring at midnight, as if time were running out for President Slobodan Milosevic.

Emboldened by Western solidarity, demonstrators protesting at election fraud hit the streets in the Yugoslav capital Belgrade and other cities and towns yesterday for the 43rd day running, despite the ban on street marches imposed by the Serbian police after a Christmas Eve riot involving opposition protesters and government loyalists.

The wave of protest is the most sustained popular push for democratisation in 50 years of one-party rule.

Thousands university students tried to march across the Sava River bridge yesterday but were blocked by police. Some policemen smiled as students cried "Happy New Year", but stood their ground.

Up to a quarter of a million people have rallied daily in Serbia against Mr Milosevic's annulment of municipal elections last month in 14 towns and cities, including Belgrade, won by the coalition of opposition groups, Zajedno (Together).

The ruling Socialists (SPS) cited "irregularities" in the vote. But Zajedno, supported later by the findings of a special delegation from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), accused the SPS of blatant vote fraud and demanded that its victories be reinstated.

Ranks of Zajedno supporters have dwindled since sub-zeroweather set in a week ago. To keep up enthusiasm Zajedno has organised a costume ball for children, scheduled for today, followed by a procession and a huge party in Republic Square.

A potentially important expression of support for Zajedno arrived in a letter which, though unsigned and unauthenticated, appeared to be from dissident officers of the Yugoslav army. The group warned Mr Milosevic in the letter, read out before 50,000 Zajedno activists in Belgrade on Sunday, that they would refuse to fire on demonstrators.

The letter was addressed to Mr Milosevic, to the army commander General Momcilo Perisic and to pro-democracy university students in Nis, Serbia's second largest city. The message included a warning that the opposition would be toppled in its turn if it became autocratic in power.

The letter suggested that any move by Mr Milosevic to declare a state of emergency would collapse or pit the army against his large security police force. The army helped him to crush demonstrations in 1991, but has remained neutral during his conflict with Zajedno.

General Perisic pledged during a meeting with the Yugoslav federal president Zoran Lilic yesterday to preserve stability, the official news agency Tanjug said.

Mr Milosevic is considering how to respond to last week's critical OSCE report. The West has warned him that aid for Yugoslavia's wrecked economy will not be forthcoming unless he concedes electoral losses and starts democratic reform.