'Dawn is coming to Serbia, the people have defeated their fear'

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Looking emotional but composed at the cusp of an electoral victory, Vojislav Kostunica, 56, the democratic opposition party challenger for the Yugoslav presidency, declared that Serbs had "defeated their fear" in voting out President Slobodan Milosevic.

Looking emotional but composed at the cusp of an electoral victory, Vojislav Kostunica, 56, the democratic opposition party challenger for the Yugoslav presidency, declared that Serbs had "defeated their fear" in voting out President Slobodan Milosevic.

"According to our count, the first-round victory is certain. Dawn is coming to Serbia. I am excited," the law professor said. "I am happy for the people and the country because this is almost the last moment to take our destiny in our hands. There is much work ahead."

On the streets outside his Belgrade headquarters, pro-government newspapers piled up unsold at news-stands while the independent dailies, containing first results of the poll, were sold out.

The great worry remained that Mr Milosevic would orchestrate an electoral fraud by rigging the work of the four-party federal electoral commission. An opposition member of the commission, Sinisa Nikolic, complained that the vote-counting agency had not met since late on Sunday. "We are encountering a wall of silence," he said. "We have no access to where computer results are being calculated."

The opposition, through the independent media, released statistics, based, it claimed, on sound mathematics, solid computer software and, above all, reliable reports of poll watchers placed at 10 000 polling stations around the country.

Crowds of Kostunica sympathisers streamed on to the streets of Belgrade. Smiling people stood around Terazije square, congratulating each other. Many youngsters chanted the slogan which has become the trademark of the challenger's campaign: "Save Serbia from the madhouse, Kostunica." Posters of President Milosevic were quietly torn from billboards, lamp posts, and public buildings and people calmly walked all over them.

The scene was repeated around Serbia with crowds of opposition sympathisers reportedly streaming into the streets of Nis, Novi Sad and Cacak. Fights between rival supporters were reported in towns loyal to Mr Milosevic near the Kosovo border.

Mr Kostunica's party, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, claimed that, with most polling stations counted, their candidate was leading with 55.31 per cent, compared to Mr Milosevic's 34.19.

Zoran Djindjic, the co-ordinator of the main opposition bloc, said that with results in from 60 per cent of polling stations, Mr Kostunica had 55 percent of the presidential vote and Mr Milosevic between 35 and 37 per cent.

The Radical Party, an ultra-nationalist grouping, formerly part of the ruling coalition, also put Mr Kostunica well in the lead, at 54.86 to 36.2 per cent for Mr Milosevic, based on results from over half the polling stations. The party also put the Democratic Opposition of Serbia bloc ahead in the parliamentary poll, with 47.91 per cent of the vote.

Mr Djindjic said the government would try to force a run-off vote, giving itself a second chance for victory. The manoeuvre would fail, he said.

Thousands were expected to turn out for an opposition victory celebration in Belgrade last night. "Finally, we are free," one young woman said. "We can start breathing like normal people. Smiles are back, the pressure is gone, we are flying!"

With the federal electoral commission, which is supposed to process the results and announce them later this week, seemingly not even in session, Mr Kostunica himself was not yet displaying any triumphalism.

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