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Beatings fail to halt Belgrade protesters

Belgrade - Undaunted by police beatings, opponents of the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, took to the streets in protest again yesterday, following clashes on Christmas Eve between pro- and anti-Milosevic crowds.

Five were hospitalised, including one man who remained in a critical condition after being shot in the head during the disturbances by a supporter of Mr Milosevic's ruling Socialist party (SPS).

More than a month of street protests against Mr Milosevic had gone without violence until Tuesday, when the SPS arranged to bus supporters into Belgrade for a rally at the same time and place as the opposition.

Vuk Draskovic, leader of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, said Tuesday's events let the genie of violence out of the bottle and marked "the beginning of civil war in Belgrade".

The harder Mr Milosevic tries to shore up the credibility of his SPS as a party ruling Serbia by popular consent, the more events conspire to prove him wrong.

Another figleaf was peeled away when Mr Milosevic's party rallied only 40,000 supporters in Belgrade under police protection on Tuesday, after boasting it would mobilise half a million.

Snow, bitter temperatures, icy streets and the memory of Tuesday's running battles yesterday did little to dampen the students' enthusiasm, although their numbers were down substantially from the 200,000 who demonstrated on the previous day. In Serbia, Christmas is celebrated on 6 January.

Blowing whistles and horns and chanting anti-Milosevic slogans, protesters snaked through the centre of the city, drawing waves and cheers of support from many onlookers in office and residential blocks along the way.

Washington and Paris warned that they held Mr Milosevic responsible for Belgrade's street violence. The German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, said any more violence would damage Serbia's efforts to reintegrate with Europe. Western governments spent much of the last year praising Mr Milosevic as a responsible world leader for his work in support of the Bosnian peace agreement.

Still firmly in control of all institutions of government, including state television, the army and police, Mr Milosevic shows no sign of surrendering power voluntarily.

Diplomats say Russia would probably block any effort by the UN Security Council to pressure Mr Milosevic by reimposing economic sanctions on Serbia, which were lifted earlier this year in the wake of the Bosnia peace deal.

His ability to use force now has been virtually vetoed by US-led Western threats of reprisals and also by hints of reluctance on the part of the security forces to get too involved.

Monitors listening to police radios during the clashes on Tuesday heard commanders ordering their men to use minimum force, even when they or SPS supporters were taking a beating from opposition activists of the Zajedno (Together) movement.

Like everyone else who works for the Serbian state, the police are paid only when the government can find the cash and therefore have less interest in preserving it. The army, which used tanks to save Mr Milosevic and quell anti-government protests that cost two lives in 1991, has stayed silently on the sidelines in 1996.

The idea that the SPS might ditch Mr Milosevic rests on the theory that the thousands of party members who hold every worthwhile job in the state apparatus and the economy have too much to lose to relinquish power.

Their wealth has been milked from the labour and looted from the bank accounts of ordinary Serbs, as Zajedno never tires of telling its supporters.

Out of power, they would be held accountable for the destruction of former Yugoslavia and the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, which have reduced Serbia's people to economic ruin.