Milosevic supporters attack poll opponent

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The Independent Online

Nato peace-keeping troops in Kosovo fought street battles with supporters of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, after they attacked his main election challenger during campaigning in northern Kosovo yesterday.

Nato peace-keeping troops in Kosovo fought street battles with supporters of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, after they attacked his main election challenger during campaigning in northern Kosovo yesterday.

In extraordinary scenes Vojislav Kostunica, who leads a coalition of 18 Serbian opposition parties currently leading the polls for elections on 24 September, was pelted with rotten tomatoes and bottles and was struck on the head by a stone.

He had been campaigning in the ethnically divided northern Kosovan town of Mitrovica when his campaign speech was disrupted by a hail of stones and rotten vegetables.

Chants of "Slobo, Slobo" drowned out his speech about Serb unity. French Nato troops clashed briefly with Milosevic supporters.

Eight people were treated for injuries after the violence.

French soldiers in full riot gear had earlier deployed on the streets of the town as thousands of supporters of Mr Milosevic's Serbian Socialist party and Mr Kostunica's coalition gathered for Mr Kostunica's appearance on his first day of campaigning in Kosovo.

Mr Kostunica's convoy was pelted with stones and the cars in his entourage kicked and spat at as he arrived to give a speech calling for Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia to unite against Mr Milosevic at thepolls. Mr Kostunica struggled to continue his speech under the hail of rotting produce but after being hit below the eye with a rock, his bodyguards dragged him off the outdoor stage and escorted him away for further meetings.

Appealing for calm, Mr Kostunica said: "He [Milosevic] put you up to this - God will forgive you, but God will not forgive him.

"The main cause of the evil striking the Serbian people is Slobodan Milosevic. I came with a message of peace. Slobodan Milosevic has already divided Serbia and I am ashamed by what I saw here."

Mr Kostunica, a bluff, down-to-earth politician and law professor who leads the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition which unites Serb opposition to Mr Milosevic, was clearly shocked by the scale of the aggression he encountered.

International observers feel that Mr Kostunica may have underestimated the level of support for Mr Milosevic in northern Kosovo which, although under the tutelage of the UN and Nato, remains part of Yugoslavia.

"Traitor," screamed one man at Mr Kostunica as he came out of an Orthodox church in the small town of Zvecan, just outside Mitrovica. "What are you doing here? You weren't even here during the bombing campaign."

Recent polls in Serbia have put Mr Kostunica well ahead of Mr Milosevic but the Serbian strongman and indicted war-criminal is feared to be poised to rig the Yugoslav elections in his favour if he does not scoop at least 50 per cent of votes in the first round of polling.

The opposition leader, speaking at a press conference after the violence, challenged Mr Milosevic to come to Kosovo and accused him of ignoring the plight of Serbs forced to flee their homes in the province after the Nato air campaign.

Mr Milosevic, indicted by The Hague for war crimes, has threatened to come to Kosovo in the run-up to the elections but the secretary general of Nato, George Robertson, said on Wednesday that he would be immediately arrested if he did.

Mr Kostunica said: "He cannot come here, he cannot go to Montenegro. He cannot appear in front of half the electorate."

Keenly aware of the potential bad publicity of a Serb presidential candidate being protected by Nato, Mr Kostunica shunned its military security throughout the day, and was careful not to be filmed or photographed being escorted or protected by the French soldiers.

Oliver Ivanovic, a Mitrovica-based Serb politician from Kosovo's Serb National Council, said that the attacks on Mr Kostunica had been carefully planned. "This was evidently a set-up, a planned action," Mr Ivanovic said.

At a press conference after the rally, Mr Kostunica said that Mr Milosevic had paid his supporters to mount the attacks.

He said in a statement: "Lacking the courage to face either me or the people, Milosevic is exploiting those few desperate souls who are ready to take a fistful of freshly printed money in order to tarnish the reputation of the people of Mitrovica and the remaining Kosovo Serbs."

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