'After so many years, it is still hard to believe all this'

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Slobodan Milosevic, the man who brought so much suffering to his own nation and to the nations with whom he started wars, had still not officially given up the ghost.

Slobodan Milosevic, the man who brought so much suffering to his own nation and to the nations with whom he started wars, had still not officially given up the ghost.

Yesterday, however, it was difficult to find anybody, even in a country where pessimism has become second nature, who believed that the dragon was still strong enough to manage a last deadly flick of his tail. Milosevic was, in the words of one opposition leader, still "in his cave" - up in his villa in the exclusive suburb of Dedinje. But he was lethally wounded, and barely relevant. For Serbia, it was already time to move on.

At a victory rally in the square in front of the partly burnt-out parliament, hundreds of thousands clapped and cheered their own victory. On the one hand, Serbs had voted to get rid of Milosevic. Above all, however, they had clung to the right to that victory. It was the size and the mood of the crowds that had changed everything else. The selfconfidence of the crowds encouraged some in the regime to defect; the defections encouraged the crowds.

And so it went on, a virtuous circle that ended yesterday with Milosevic and his equally loathed Mira both holed up, and without any apparent support. Mirjana Jerinic, a 25-year-old maths student, said: "We feel so happy, we can't believe this is true. For so many years, it was as though somebody was always pushing us down. I still can't believe it, even now."

By last night, Milosevic seemed to have no friends at all. Even the Serb president and Milosevic appointee, Milutin Milanovic, described him as an "autistic personality" - a sudden discovery, it seems, after all these years. Marko Milosevic, a thuggish racketeer who is loathed almost as much as his father, was reported to have fled from Pozarevac, Milosevic's home town, where he owned a string of businesses.

In the window of the main offices of Politika, the traditionally pro-Milosevic daily - whose main headline yesterday proclaimed "Serbia on the road to democracy" - was a mock death notice for Slobodan Milosevic, lethally wounded in elections on 24 September.

Ljubica Cvetkovic, a 48-year-old former employee of the city police, laughed with happiness as she and others gathered around to read the notice, which including thanks from his people "for gathering us together in such large numbers". She threw her hands expansively wide as she declared: "I'm in a wonderful mood. It's all over. Even the army can do nothing now."

There were regrets at the destruction on Thursday night - the parliament was partly set on fire, the city offices of Milosevic's Socialist Party were looted and partly set on fire, and the city-centre headquarters of Serbian state television, one wing of which was bombed by Nato last year, was badly damaged by fire.

Mirjana Perisic, who has worked for 30 years as an RTS technician, has been on strike this week in support of the opposition, and talked of her "fantastic feeling" yesterday. But she was angry, too, at the burning of the TV offices. "It's again the people who will have to pay."

In the circumstances, however, it is little short of a miracle that Serbia has got away with so little violence. Few in Belgrade believed that it could ever be this way, or that Belgrade would have such good reason to celebrate.