Belgrade tense after police beat Draskovic: The Serbian capital could descend into a 'whirlpool of violence' says Marcus Tanner

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A TENSE calm returned to the streets of Belgrade yesterday after police arrested and severely beat the leader of Serbia's largest opposition movement, following a riot outside the Yugoslav parliament in which one policeman was killed.

An Interior Ministry statement said Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, was arrested after he assaulted a policeman in a struggle outside the parliament between police and several thousand protesters.

Mr Draskovic's wife, Danica, who was arrested but allowed one telephone call, said she watched as police dragged her husband around a courtyard of Belgrade's main police station by his feet after his arrest.

The opposition leader was admitted to hospital overnight for facial surgery after his ordeal in the police station. A doctor who treated him said Mr Draskovic suffered head fractures, lost some teeth, could not speak or stand up and appeared to be suffering from internal bleeding. Although doctors protested he was not fit to move, the police dragged Mr Draskovic out of his bed and took him back to prison as soon as the operation was over.

The police arrested Mr Draskovic at 1am yesterday after enraged demonstrators, shouting slogans against the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, attempted to storm the parliament. Tempers are running high among Serbia's impoverished population, and for some the beating-up of a deputy from Mr Draskovic's party inside the parliament by a member of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party was the final straw.

Riot police flooded the city centre, fired rounds of tear gas and repeatedly baton-charged the crowd, which hurled stones at the parliament and smashed windows and streetlamps. One policeman was hit and died yesterday of brain injuries. Dozens of demonstrators were injured. The police made more than 120 arrests. Mr and Mrs Draskovic called on the youthful crowd to disperse and stage a peaceful protest the following day. They retired to party headquarters.

But there was to be no protest. In the early hours of the morning, riot police surrounded the headquarters building and a posse of 40 moved in. The Draskovics were led away in handcuffs. Police lined the entrance to the building. Eye-witnesses said they gave him a savage beating as he ran the gauntlet from the building to a waiting police van.

Staff at Mr Draskovic's headquarters said the police arrested 30 party officials at the same time. 'The police were armed to the teeth with machine guns, pistols, gas masks and wore flak-jackets - they looked like real dogs of war,' said Blagica Stojanovic, a party spokeswoman. 'When we demanded to see their warrants they just laughed. They said they belonged to the Special Intervention Brigade and did not need warrants.'

Mr Draskovic, 47, has long been a thorn in the side of Mr Milosevic and his ruling Serbian Socialist Party. While Serbia's other opposition hummed and hawed about the brutal war in Croatia and Bosnia, the charismatic writer-turned-politician focused his considerable wit on Serbia's leaders and Mr Milosevic in particular, calling them bandits and thugs who dragged Serbia's name through the mud.

Vuk Draskovic started in politics in the mid-eighties as a nationalist opponent of Communist rule. He espoused a Greater Serbia under a restored monarchy. His was a nave Balkan dream of a democratic land of prosperous peasants, jolly priests, wise kings. With his long hair, hypnotic eyes and richly timbred voice, he looked like a Serbian Rasputin. He loved to doodle maps of Serbia's future borders and to muse about a great future federation of Eastern Orthodox countries stretching from Belgrade to Moscow. He was inconsistent on most points and consistent only in voicing ribald contempt for Mr Milosevic. Loathed by many Serbs as a traitor, he had a core of dedicated followers in Belgrade and in the Serbian countryside, who regarded him as little less than a messiah.

After the failure of a big anti-Milosevic demonstration in Belgrade which he led in March 1991, he became a marginalised figure. But Mr Milosevic never forgot or forgave his most trenchant critic. His opposition to the war in Bosnia and Croatia made him dangerous, and there was always the fear in government circles that he might one day act as a catalyst for a future revolt.

Recently he appeared embittered, accusing Western countries of propping up Mr Milosevic and of giving in to him in Bosnia. He foresaw Serbia's descent into a whirlpool of violence. At his last press conference he said more protests would soon shake Serbia and they would end in bloodshed.

At the time he was accused of inciting a civil war. In retrospect he was just prophetic.

(Photographs omitted)