Milosevic admits historic defeat but refuses to go

Second round of voting will buy time for beleaguered regime after ruling that opposition failed to secure sufficient majority
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The Independent Online

Election authorities in Yugoslavia conceded last night that the opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica had beaten Slobodan Milosevic in this week's presidential poll, but they said he had fallen short of the majority needed for outright victory and a second round of voting would be needed.

Election authorities in Yugoslavia conceded last night that the opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica had beaten Slobodan Milosevic in this week's presidential poll, but they said he had fallen short of the majority needed for outright victory and a second round of voting would be needed.

In a sign that the Belgrade regime is seeking to avoid a potentially bloody confrontation with opposition supporters, the move was designed to acknowledge Mr Kostunica'spopularity while allowing President Milosevic the breathing space he needs to consider his strategy.

State television claimed that Mr Kostunica had won 48.22 per cent of the votes and Mr Milosevic 40.23 per cent, according to what it said were preliminary results based on 10,153 polling stations out of about 10,500. The "run-off" poll must be held within 15 days of the first vote.

The opposition had earlier claimed that Mr Kostunica won an outright victory in the first round with 54.66 per cent against 35.01 per cent for Mr Milosevic, after 98.5 per cent of the votes had been counted.

Minutes before the official election announcement on state television, opposition officials rejected the idea of a second round. The Democratic Party head, Zoran Djindjic, told a news conference: "We cannot change the electoral will of the citizens because that would be a crime for which the penalty may be three years in jail."

Zarko Korac, of the Social Democratic Union, said: "If 2.9 million people have given their judgement, no one has the right to negotiate that. Balkan observers said the recourse to a second round of voting was a typical Milosevic manoeuvre, buying time in which to try to reinforce his grip on power. "He's a master of using time." said one Western diplomat. "It would give him at least another 10 to 12 days to figure out what to do and that could include all sorts of things like trying to drive wedges among the opposition, trying to bribe some of them off, whatever else." He added that Mr Milosevic might also try to provoke some crisis that would indefinitely postpone the second round of voting.

In the bluntest Western warning yet to Mr Milosevic, Britain told the Yugoslav President yesterday not to use force to hang on to power, stressing that the allies who had driven him from Kosovo still had a strong military presence in the region.

Addressing the Labour conference in Brighton, Tony Blair told Mr Milosevic bluntly, "You lost. Go." Earlier, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, declared that "naked power" was the only way a beaten and discredited president could stay on. But, he noted, Nato had substantial forces on hand in the Balkans: "He should not be attempting any further military venture." As if to underline the point, George Robertson, Nato's secretary general, cut short a trip to the Caucasus to chair a meeting today of the North Atlantic Council, the alliance's political arm, which authorised last year's bombing. Mr Robertson said Nato was "worried there might be a spillover of violence fromSerbia".

Mr Cook was evidently referring to the widely expressed fear that the Yugoslav leader might seek a diversion from political defeat at home by unleashing his army against Serbia's reluctant and pro-Western sister republic Montenegro, or by stirring up fresh trouble in Kosovo.

But in Belgrade, where memories of the bombing by Nato are still fresh, opposition leaders warned that such language was counterproductive, merely enabling a desperate Mr Milosevic to brandish anew the spectre of a foreign military attack on Serbia.

One activist said: "If they want Milosevic to leave they should keep quiet. They should stay out of this. Elections are our business." Momcilo Perisic, leader of the small Movement for Democratic Serbia, went further, accusing "unhinged world leaders" of doing "many things which have only caused suffering for our people".

Mr Cook's stick was in sharp contrast to the carrot offered by Hubert Vedrine, speaking on behalf of the EU, of which France holds the presidency. Whatever Belgrade might claim, Mr Kostunica had won an "indisputable" victory.

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