Milosevic blocks rally in his 'forbidden city'

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The Independent Online

Serbian oppoition parties were forced to cancel a protest rally in the home town of President Slobodan Milosevic yesterday after police arrested leading dissidents and blocked buses carrying supporters to the demonstration.

Instead, the ruling coalition of the JUL and FPS parties organised its own rally in support of the Milosevic regime, timed to coincide with the opposition protest. Schools and public buildings were closed for the day to allow as many people as possible to attend.

The opposition rally, with the slogan "Stop the terror - For democratic elections", would have been the first in years in Pozarevac, 50 miles east of Belgrade, a Milosevic stronghold known as the forbidden city.

A statement from opposition leaders in Belgrade that announced the cancellation of the march said: "It is a clear intention by the regime to instigate clashes, even civil war. The regime has done everything to prevent the rally."

The meeting was to protest at last week's beating of three anti-government student activists in Pozarevac who had clashed with close associates of Mr Milosevic's son, Marko. Had the rally gone ahead, more violence was expected.

Police were deployed early, in large numbers, at four checkpoints on the outskirts of Belgrade, stopping buses carrying opposition supporters. Four buses taking Serbian opposition leaders to Pozarevac were ordered to undergo "technical inspection" before being allowed to leave.

About 200 would-be protesters whose buses "passed inspection" were again stopped by police. They blocked traffic on the main highway leading to Pozarevac, demanding passage. They sat on the road, stopping hundreds of cars for about two hours before riot police moved them away.

Pozarevac has become something of a fortress town since Mr Milosevic's rise to power a decade ago. Besides housing Serbia's biggest jail for men and only prison for women, it is the base of the President's business empire. Many in the town see Marko Milosevic as a greedy bully who used his parents' position to make himself rich.

On 2 May, five friends and bodyguards of Marko demanded that a well-known local opposition activist publicly renounce membership in his party and join the ruling Socialists. He refused and a fight started. Two other opposition activists and a passer-by were severely beaten by Marko's entourage and arrest-ed. They spent a week in jail and were released on Monday. No charges were brought.

Momcilo Veljkovic, one of the freed activists, said Marko Milosevic showed up during the incident and told his friends: "Kill the bastards."

The attack brought protests from Serbia's opposition parties. Milosevic supporters countered with a smear campaign, calling the protesters "Hitlerjugend" (Hitler Youth), "fascists", "Nato mercenaries" and "creators of chaos that could lead to civil war".