Belgrade students force rector to quit

Serbian students celebrated victory yesterday after the diehard pro-government rector of Belgrade University resigned in response to more than 100 days of student boycotts and street protests. Dragutin Velickovic, who was appointed by the Socialist government of President Slobodan Milosevic, announced his resignation as part of a deal under which the students agreed to return to their classes.

It was the Socialist authorities' second major concession to their political opponents this year. Last month, after weeks of daily pro-democracy demonstrations across Serbia, Mr Milosevic finally recognised opposition victories in last November's municipal elections in Belgrade and other cities.

For the students, the resignation of their despised rector was so important a demand that they continued their protests even after the authorities acknowledged the opposition election successes. Mr Velickovic resisted almost to the end, vowing last Tuesday that he would seek the dismissal of all the university deans who had supported the students' call for his removal.

It is possible that there is more to the rector's resignation than meets the eye. His departure from office must be approved on 20 March by the Belgrade University council, but that body is packed with pro-Socialist stalwarts.

In the weeks leading up to his resignation, Mr Velickovic was the butt of several student stunts designed to ridicule him in the public eye. Playing on the fact that he was generally keeping a low profile, students went looking for him in Belgrade zoo, peered through telescopes in the city's observatory in case he was in outer space, and fished for him in the Sava river using a red Socialist Party card as bait.

Despite their concessions over the election results and the rector, the ruling Socialists have continued to harry the opposition on other fronts. Last Thursday the pro-Milosevic state television and radio network said it would stop helping an independent station, BK Television, to broadcast programmes outside Belgrade.

BK is owned by one of Mr Milosevic's political critics and has reported extensively on the anti-government protests of recent months. By limiting its broadcasts to Belgrade, Mr Milosevic seems intent on preventing the opposition's views from attracting an audience in rural areas of Serbia where he still retains public support.

The opposition coalition movement, Zajedno (Together), said it would hold a rally tomorrow (Sunday) and dedicate it to the struggle for media freedom in Serbia.