Milosevic has fled, opponents claim

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The Independent Online

Slobodan Milosevic has fled his home hours after anti-government supporters stormed the Yugoslav parliament, according to opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica.

Slobodan Milosevic has fled his home hours after anti-government supporters stormed the Yugoslav parliament, according to opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica.

Kostunica made the announcement to thousands of supporters in Belgrade - before declaring himself elected President of Yugoslavia.

Reports say there is no sign of Milosevic, or his police, at his family compound.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said as far as the United States knew, Milosevic was still in Belgrade.

Yugoslavia's official Tanjug news agency, long seen as a Milosevic mouthpiece, has now called Kostunica "elected president of Yugoslavia".

A brief and rare urgent report on Tanjug announced the agency was siding with the demonstrators and that it would stick to principles of professional journalism in its reporting.

It was signed the statement with: "Journalists of liberated Tanjug".

World leaders also united in their call for Milosevic to step down peacefully on the day an estimated 500,000 people took to Begrade's streets in protest.

Tony Blair told Milosevic: "Your time is up. Go now. Don't wait until there has been more death and destruction."

And US President Bill Clinton, speaking at the White House, added: "All we want for the Serbian people (is) ... the right to freely choose their own leaders."

Anti-government demonstrators stormed the parliament building at the third attempt after initially being forced back by riot police.

Flames poured out amid chaotic scenes which left protesters free to fly flags from its windows as police looked powerlessly on and then fled.

Some police units and army conscripts sided with demonstrators, and it is unclear whether the full army will stand by Milosevic.

His Socialist Party of Serbia has issued a statement vowing to fight back and attacking the protesters' "violence and destruction".

Kostunica told supporters in the centre of Belgrade this evening that Serbia is again "part of Europe".

He also called on Western nations to lift economic sanctions because Yugoslavia is now a democratic state.

And he added: "We call on everybody to accept peacefully and with dignity the results of the election.

"We call on the military and police to do everything to ensure a peaceful transition of power."

He told the crowd "there would have been no NATO troops if there hadn't been Slobodan Milosevic.

"Bombs wouldn't have dropped on this people if there hadn't been Slobodan Milosevic. He was stealing and didn't know how to conceal the theft."

He declared Serbia "is now on the road to democracy, to where there is no place for Slobodan Milosevic".

He also urged the crowd to stay in the streets until Milosevic is gone, adding: "There are no more people who will stand by him. What we are doing today is making history.

"And this people is doing that without anybody's help. We don't need Moscow or Washington. Serbia is going to be what it always has been, a part of Europe.

"This is my message to Europe and the entire democratic world: down with the sanctions. This is a democracy. We are still in the last moments of Milosevic's Serbia but we will overcome that and defend our victory."

Clashes spread through Belgrade's streets this afternoon, initially echoing with the sound of stun grenades and tear gas fired to break up the crowds.

Two people are reported killed and dozens injured.

Shots were heard outside the pro-Milosevic television station, where a huge crowd gathered. A bulldozer, apparently commandeered by demonstrators, broke into the building, driving over a protester and apparently killing him.

Demonstrators poured inside. Police fled out the back. Demonstrators said dozens of police at the state TV building and at federal parliament had joined crowds taking control of both buildings.

The melee erupted during a huge rally which the opposition called to force Milosevic to accept electoral defeat by Kostunica in last month's elections.

Hours earlier, Yugoslavia's Constitutional Court declared the election void and said it must be re-run.

That has been roundly condemned by the West as a ploy to keep Milosevic in power.

A British Foreign Office spokesman said: "Any constitutional device designed to annul the election and keep Milosevic in power is unacceptable.

"He called premature elections to preserve power. He was clearly defeated. He is now clinging to power by getting the Constitutional Court to act unconstitutionally.

"He is trying to buy time. But the voice of Serb people must be heard and Milosevic must go."

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright added: "It is very evident to us that an absolute majority of the Yugoslav people voted for Mr Kostunica for president.

"The people of Yugoslavia have made their will known: Milosevic should not thwart them."

At least five protesters were said to be lying injured on the steps of parliament when it was stormed.

A policeman caught by the crowd was beaten. It is believed several policemen deserted their cordon and joined the protesters. Five police cars were set afire in the front of the parliament.

The opposition claimed the decision by the pro-Milosevic Yugoslav Constitutional Court was aimed at prolonging his stay in power.

Thousands more protesters joined smaller rallies in towns throughout the country.

In the third largest city, Nis, about 10,000 people tried to push their way into the local office of Milosevic's party but were persuaded by opposition leaders not to give police a reason to attack them.

By early afternoon, downtown Belgrade was a mass of people, many streaming toward the parliament building and blocking traffic as they did so.

Many wore paper caps with the slogan "We'll Endure." They moved past shops, some shut down with signs stating: "Closed because of Robbery," an allusion to opposition claims that Milosevic stole the elections.

Some state-run stores, prohibited from shutting down in anti-Milosevic protest, did so nonetheless, but under the cover of taking inventory.

The government acknowledged Kostunica outpolled Milosevic but fell short of a majority in the five-candidate race. A run-off had been set for Sunday.

Late yesterday, the constitutional court, in a brief dispatch by the state-run Tanjug news agency, said "part" of the election had been annulled. There was no comprehensive statement from the court.

But one justice, Milutin Srdic, told Radio Free Europe the entire election result had been thrown out and a new vote would be required. In the meantime, Srdic said Milosevic could remain in office through his term which expires in July.

The opposition said it had not been officially notified of the ruling. However, opposition legal expert Nebojsa Bakarec dismissed the decision as the latest "in a series of unconstitutional moves" by Milosevic "to manipulate the electoral will of the people".

In what the opposition saw as a further sign the regime was crumbling, more than 160 employees of Serbian state television - a major pillar of Milosevic's power - were fired after going on strike. Most were technicians and staff of non-political programs.

Most Milosevic loyalists remained, and kept the network on the air.

Elsewhere, police in Subotica near the Hungarian border arrested a student activist, triggering a protest rally by about 10,000 people in the main town square.

Police had set up roadblocks outside Belgrade, but the convoys of protesters were so large that most of them were allowed to pass.

A convoy of about 2,000 people was briefly blocked near the town of Smederevska Palanka about 30 miles south of Belgrade, but eventually pushed their way through barricades.

Protesters used a front-end loader to shove aside two sand trucks used by authorities to try to block a 12-mile line of cars and buses with about 15,000 people traveling from the opposition stronghold of Cacak. Riot police stood by without intervening.

At another roadblock, trucks were pushed away and demonstrators negotiated with a police commander to be allowed through. At yet another blockade, angry protesters overturned a police car and dumped it into a ditch.

Several thousand people were marching toward Belgrade from the industrial city of Pancevo, six miles north of the capital.

The mass march on Belgrade followed a day of dramatic developments at the strikebound Kolubara coal mine in which police were forced to abandon plans to take over the compound after confronting fearless anti-Milosevic crowds.

Such defiance in the face of police was unprecedented in Yugoslavia's 55-year communist history.