Opposition protests bring Yugoslavia to a halt

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The Independent Online

The Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, lashed out at his opponents yesterday as the first day of a campaign of civil disobedience, aimed at forcing him to relinquish power, brought Serbia to astandstill.

The Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, lashed out at his opponents yesterday as the first day of a campaign of civil disobedience, aimed at forcing him to relinquish power, brought Serbia to astandstill.

In a rare televised address the embattled President vehemently ruled out conceding defeat, vowing to fight a second-round election run-off on 8 October and fulminating that the West would use an opposition victory to engineer an "occupation" of Serbia.

Mr Milosevic may have been emboldened by an earlier statement from the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who offered to host talks between Mr Milosevic and his challenger for the Yugoslav presidency, Vojislav Kostunica. Mr Putin stopped well short of bowing to Western pressure to back Mr Kostunica, and appeared careful not to distance himself from Mr Milosevic.

Referring to both men as candidates in the second round - implicit recognition of the official first round results - Mr Putin said: "As President of Russia, I am prepared to receive in the next few days in Moscow both candidates who have gone through to the second round... to discuss means of finding a way out of the current situation."

In a vintage performance, broadcast simultaneously on six television channels in Belgrade, Mr Milosevic sought to present himself as the great defender of Serbia's interests, selfless in his attempt to keep the ship of state sailing while the opposition did its best to destroy the country.

"I believe I have a duty to caution the citizens of our country to the consequences of activities financed and supported by the governments of the Nato countries," he said before accusing his election challengers of blackmail, intimidation and violence.

But even as he spoke, an unprecedented wave of protests presented the President with the most serious challenge yet to his 13-year reign. Blockades, rallies, boycotts, school and university closures and strikes were reported across the country as the opposition stepped up its demands that the government should recognise the defeat of Mr Milosevic at the polls.

All over the country, parents kept their children from school and thousands of students took to the streets of Belgrade chanting "Save Serbia and kill yourself, Slobodan". Meanwhile rubbish containers blocked key boulevards from the early morning. Private cars jammed the streets, allowing only supply vehicles or ambulances to pass. Many people stayed at home from work as the public transport system ground to a halt. Hospitals were dealing only with emergency cases.

Many journalists at the formerly independent and now pro-government Studio B Television went on strike in protest at the station's editorial policy. The independent Beta news agency reported that thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the Novi Sad studios of Serbian state television, including journalists from the studio itself.

Meanwhile, Switzerland said yesterday it had frozen about 100 bank accounts belonging to allies of Slobodan Milosevic, although none were in the name of the Yugoslav President himself. The Swiss Finance Minister, Kaspar Villiger, told parliament that foreign heads of state frequently used fake names for stashing money away in accounts in the country.

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