Milosevic threatens crackdown on opponents as strikes spread

As the President attempts to intimidate his opponents, they challenge the election in the country's highest court
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The Independent Online

Slobodan Milosevic's opponents have taken charges of election fraud before Yugoslavia's highest court, appealing to the justices to grant them victory in presidential elections, amid government threats to crack down on strikes and street protests.

Slobodan Milosevic's opponents have taken charges of election fraud before Yugoslavia's highest court, appealing to the justices to grant them victory in presidential elections, amid government threats to crack down on strikes and street protests.

Yugoslavia's Constitutional Court is to meet in emergency session to hear complaints by the 18-party opposition coalition, maintaining that Milosevic's cronies manipulated election results by using a sophisticated software program.

Opposition leaders said they had obtained a copy of the program and would use it to illustrate how the vote was rigged to favor Milosevic's candidacy. Yet the court is full of Milosevic loyalists, which has led to a number of controversial verdicts.

President Slobodan Milosevic's government has moved a step closer to conflict in Serbia by issuing arrest orders for opposition leaders involved in organizing a strike at a key coal mine - one of dozens of work stoppages and other protests nationwide meant to force him from office.

The announcement by the Belgrade prosecutor was preceded by a government warning of "special measures" against those responsible for the growing wave of strikes and blockades called to force Milosevic to accept defeat the September 24 elections.

The moves raise fears that Milosevic may resort to the army and police to hold on to power, despite growing calls at home and abroad for him to step down in favor of challenger Vojislav Kostunica. They also raise the potential for clashes at a planned opposition rally in Belgrade on Thursday billed as a final push to drive Milosevic from power.

Milosevic acknowledges Kostunica won more votes in the five-candidate contest but insists he fell short of the required majority and has called a second ballot for Sunday. Milosevic's opponents claim Kostunica won the election outright and refuse to participate in the vote, claiming the Yugoslav president would only cheat again.

While strikes, road blocks and civil unrest have gripped much of Serbia Belgrade, the capital, has functioned relatively normally.

Workers at a key copper mine in the southern town of Majdanpek walked out after parking dump trucks at the mine gates and unloading dirt and rocks to build barricades, a news agency reported.

Barricades remained up around the central town of Cacak, where almost all shops remained shut. Merchants displayed signs in the windows proclaiming: "Closed because of Robbery," alluding to the contested vote count. Striking railroad workers cut lines from Serbia to Yugoslavia's smaller republic, Montenegro.

Elsewhere, some 30,000 people marched through the second-largest city of Novi Sad. In Nis, about 400 workers walked out a tobacco factory, carrying a huge photograph of Milosevic draped in black cloth as a sign of mourning.

In Belgrade, high school students blocked a downtown square with garbage containers and tens of thousands opposition supporters marched to the government statistics bureau, which counted the votes from last month's election. Marchers chanted: "Thieves! Thieves!"

Separately, an estimated 20,000 people chanting "the police are with us" marched toward Milosevic's residence in the exclusive Dedinje district. Hundreds of riot police turned them away without incident, allowing the crowd to march down a major highway which divides the capital.

Also Tuesday, miners at Kolubara turned down a demand from the army's chief of staff, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, that the strikers return to work. It marked the first time Milosevic has used the military in any role during the current crisis.

The government struck back by introducing four-hour power cuts to opposition-controlled cities, blaming the strikers for a shortage of coal. The Belgrade prosecutor's office ordered the arrest of 13 alleged organizers of the strike at the Kolubara mine, which provides coal to a major electric power station. They include Nebojsa Covic, a former pro-Milosevic mayor of Belgrade who joined the opposition after disputed 1996 local elections.

In the televised statement, the government warned that it would not tolerate "violent behavior," which disrupts vital institutions and "threatens citizens' lives."

"Special measures will be taken against the organizers of these criminal activities," the government said, clearly threatening opposition leaders with arrest. "These measures also apply to media that are financed from abroad and are breeding lies, untruths and inciting bloodshed."

In other signs the government was preparing to get tough, police in the southern town of Vranje dispersed about 2,000 protesters, and opposition officials said dozens were arrested Tuesday. They were promptly sentenced to between 10 and 30 days in jail for taking part in the work stoppages and road blocks, the opposition coalition reported.

Despite the warning, the opposition remained defiant.

"The government is branding us saboteurs and enemies, so why don't they put us on trial?" Kostunica told 40,000 cheering supporters Tuesday in Kragujevac. "Let them dare. Milosevic is the biggest creator of chaos in Serbia."