Anti-Milosevic protests taking hold across Yugoslavia

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The Independent Online

Truck and taxi drivers blockaded roads and bridges, students stayed home and factories closed throughout Yugoslavia on Monday to start a protest blitz by opposition forces that could test their resolve to drive President Slobodan Milosevic from office.

Truck and taxi drivers blockaded roads and bridges, students stayed home and factories closed throughout Yugoslavia on Monday to start a protest blitz by opposition forces that could test their resolve to drive President Slobodan Milosevic from office.

Milosevic's foes have vowed to bring the country to a standstill with general strikes and road blockades. But the buildup to the campaign has been slow and cautious, raising questions about whether they possess the momentum and stamina to carry out their threats.

Less than a week remains before Sunday's scheduled run-off elections. Milosevic says challenger Vojislav Kostunica failed to achieve an outright victory in Sept. 24 elections and a second round is needed. The opposition, backed by the West, insists Milosevic rigged the voting.

Kostrunica branded Monday's protest actions as a "quiet and smart democratic revolution."

"People are ready to start building a new country," Kostunica said. "Milosevic has been ousted in the elections, but someone has to tell him that."

Road blockades snarled traffic on one bridge in the capital, Belgrade, for about three hours, while city transit workers staged a two-hour walkout. The blockade appeared stronger in cities and towns outside Belgrade, bringing life to a virtual standstill in the central and southern industrial heartland towns like Nis, Cacak, Pancevo and Uzice.

The opposition Democratic Opposition of Serbia said the blocking of traffic in Belgrade was over for Monday, but would continue Tuesday for five hours and the whole day on Wednesday if Milosevic doesn't recognize his electoral defeat by then.

Cedomir Jovanovic, the coalition's spokesman, reported several incidents caused by police at the blockades in the capital. Four people were injured in a clash with police in Surcin, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the capital at a road junction.

Dozens of trams and buses lined up in Slavija square and the surrounding streets in Belgrade. Hundreds of cars also lined up around Autokomanda, a major intersection, as people struggled to move. Most taxis also refused to operate.

Traffic and special police were present, trying to break the blockade by impounding license plates from private cars and driving away parked buses or trucks.

Another road blockade effectively sealed off the opposition-run town of Cacak in central Yugoslavia early Monday. By 5 a.m. (0300 GMT), some 70 truck drivers completely jammed the road outside the industrial town of 80,000 people.

In Nis, the third largest Yugoslav city and its main industrial zone, about 10,000 workers walked out from their jobs to demand Milosevic's ouster. All shops and schools stopped work in the city and people gathered at the main downtown square.

In Belgrade, about 10,000 university and high school students rallied in one of the biggest anti-Milosevic student protests in the capital in nearly four years.

And in the southwestern town of Uzice, railway workers walked off the job and thousands industrial workers joined them, cutting off the country's main north-south railway link.

Milosevic has so far held the military and police in check. There were fears, however, he could be running out of options as some vital industries, such as coal mines, join the opposition ranks.

The independent Beta news agency reported that 500 policemen entered the Kolubara mine, the nation's largest, late Sunday. The action could be at attempt to thwart sabotage at the mine, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Belgrade, where thousands of workers have walked out.

A close Milosevic supporter, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, accused opposition groups of seeking "chaos, clashes and unrest." The republics of Serbia and Western-oriented Montenegro comprise what remains of Yugoslavia.

Opposition leader Milan Protic, and the opposition's candidate for Belgrade mayor, urged people to abandon their jobs and schools and take to the streets, saying this "will last until Milosevic realizes that he is no longer president."

"We are waging a battle" Velimir Ilic, the mayor of Cacak, told about 10,000 opposition supporters gathered at the main town square for an eighth consecutive day Monday. "If we lose, all we can expect is misery and poverty."

A local police patrol briefly attempted to take the license plate of one of the truckers in Cacak around dawn Monday. They found themselves outnumbered and surrounded, however, and quickly handed it back.

Taxi drivers joined the truckers, some arriving at the blockade carrying supplies of bread and yogurt to drivers who had parked on the city outskirts. Protest leaders pledged their numbers would grow as the day went on.

Only essential public services were operating in several cities.

"They are sending a strong message to Milosevic: 'Your time in office is over,"' said U.S. National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley in Washington.

Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Milosevic and Kostunica to Moscow for talks on resolving Yugoslavia's election dispute, the Kremlin said Monday.

Putin hasn't abandoned Milosevic, but indicated support for Kostunica in conversation with Western leaders this weekend.

However, his statement on Monday referred to Milosevic and Kostunica as "candidates who entered the second round runoff" - an indication that he may be favoring Milosevic.