A day of reckoning

March On Parliament
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The Independent Online

All Serbia seemed to be on the move yesterday - both literally and politically. By mid-morning, hours before the planned start of the opposition rally in Belgrade, there was a steady stream of hooting cars and buses heading towards the capital to demand the recognition of election victory that the government continues to deny.

All Serbia seemed to be on the move yesterday - both literally and politically. By mid-morning, hours before the planned start of the opposition rally in Belgrade, there was a steady stream of hooting cars and buses heading towards the capital to demand the recognition of election victory that the government continues to deny.

The day of reckoning had arrived at last. On the road between Kolubara and Belgrade, new opposition posters had appeared. One of them telling the regime bluntly: "It's no use. One plus one still equals two." The arithmetic is indeed simple, and the striking miners at Kolubara had helped make it simpler still.

Opposition leaders had given Slobodan Milosevic, who had ruled them with a rod of iron for 13 years, an ultimatum: he must step aside by 3pm.

But at 10.51am, state radio announced that the Constitutional Court had annulled the result of the presidential election on 24 September and ordered a new vote to be held at the end of Mr Milosevic's mandate, in effect leaving him in power until next summer. The Houdini of the Balkans appeared to have played yet another masterstroke.

But he had not calculated on the overwhelming desire for change at every level of Serbian society. This time the great magician had fatally underestimated his people's determination to see the massive mandate they gave Vojislav Kostunica respected. Soon, even Milosevic's trusted police force would be casting off their bulletproof jackets and riot helmets to join the hundreds of thousands who were converging on central Belgrade and Milosevic's centres of power.

Immediately after the state radio broadcast,the opposition coalition filed criminal charges against Mr Milosevic for ordering vote rigging. "Judge Bajic received the charges and said he would act according to the law," the dissident economist Mladjan Dinkic said.

But by 2.50pm, the crowds outside the Yugoslav parliament building had grown so large that police fired tear gas at them as they pushed toward the building. The police action was short-lived. The sheer size and determination of the crowd meant that as one wave of protesters was driven back, another filled its place. Those defending the building were simply no match for the crowd. "They're giving up," said a demonstrator who identified himself only as Sasha. "They're whining like little girls, saying they didn't want to fight against the people."

At around 3.50pm, the pressure became unstoppable, and groups of demonstrators ran into the building. Others - from burly farmers to black-robed priests - smashed windows and waved Yugoslav flags from the balconies of the building, where Mr Milosevic was sworn in to another term in 1997, promising "peace, progress and prosperity".

Inside, gangs of young people, many of them intoxicated, smashed furniture and computers and set fires. Some looted what valuables they could carry. Documents were strewn on the floor, along with pictures of regime officials in broken frames. Protesters waved Yugoslav flags outside.

"At this moment, terror rules in Belgrade," the pro-Milosevic state television said in a commentary. "They are attacking everyone they see on the streets and there is chaos."

Mr Milosevic's message was cut short just after 4pm. An independent Belgrade radio station reported the sound of rapid gunfire in front of the state television building, where riot police had already gathered.

Then, a bulldozer, commandeered by the demonstrators, broke into the building and demonstrators poured inside. Police fled out the back or surrendered. Soon, flames engulfed part of the building, which was hit during the Nato air strikes last year.

By 5.20pm, the opposition declared it had taken over the television station. Announcing that police had joined the demonstrations in the streets, it called for more people to come out and appealed for calm.

Sporadic clashes between the dwindling ranks of loyalist police and the demonstrators spread through the streets. In most places, however, the crowds roamed unhindered through the city streets. Many wore paper caps with the slogan, "We'll Endure". They moved past shops, some shut down with signs stating, "Closed because of robbery" - an allusion to opposition claims that Milosevic stole the elections. "The police cordon has been defeated. I'm telling his generals: when they try to use the army against the people, it will turn against them," said a former army chief, General Momcilo Perisic, who now backs the opposition.

At 5.32pm, Mr Milosevic's Socialist Party issued a statement attacking the opposition for causing unrest and violence, and said it would fight back with "all means to secure peaceful life". But the threat fell on deaf ears. by 6pm, independent radio B292 was reporting that a detachment of around 15 armoured vehicles driven by members of the special police had retreated towards their base on the outskirts of the capital. Shortly before 7pm, the opposition spokesman Cedomir Jovanovic said General Perisic was negotiating with the army.

By early evening, the state Tanjug news agency, one of chief pillars of Mr Milosevic's rule, announced it was no longer loyal to its erstwhile master. "From this moment, Tanjug informs the Yugoslav public that it is with the people of this country and that it will report entirely on the basis of professional standards, truthfully and objectively, in accordance with the basic interests of the people and the country," said a brief statement, signed "Journalists of the Free Tanjug" and carried by the agency. Tanjug joined several major state-run media outlets which switched sides yesterday.

As darkness closed on Belgrade, Mr Kostunica stood in triumph on the balcony of the parliament building as the crowd roared its support.

"Good evening, liberated Serbia," he told the tens of thousands gathered in the square. "Serbia is running a victory lap at this moment and along that track there is no Slobodan Milosevic. What we are doing today is making history. And this people is doing that without anybody's help."

The crowd chanted in reply: "He's finished" and "Arrest Slobo".

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