Panic challenges Milosevic for Serbian presidency

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THE KNIVES came out in the Serbian election campaign yesterday after Milan Panic, the reformist Yugoslav Prime Minister, ended weeks of dithering with a formal announcement that he will run against Slobodan Milosevic for the post of president of Serbia.

The news that Mr Panic was about to plunge into the race was preceded by a flurry of resignations from his government by ministers who back Mr Milosevic's hardline nationalist views. Two of the three departing ministers publicly accused the former Californian businessman of working for foreign powers.

The flight of the pro-Milosevic ministers prompted Mr Panic's office to issue a statement condemning 'a transparent attempt by Mr Milosevic to undermine the government . . . in a frenzied effort to stay in power at all costs . . . The resignations have obviously been encouraged by Mr Milosevic's fear that Mr Panic will be a strong rival for the post of Serbian president at the upcoming elections.'

The statement was a declaration of war by Mr Panic on the Serbian leader, which ended months of indecision among the disunited opponents of Mr Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party over what strategy to pursue in the elections. The Serbian electoral commission was weighing up last night whether to disqualify Mr Panic's candidature, on the grounds that he has not lived in the rump Yugoslavia for a year - the minimum period for presidential candidates. But the commission is unlikely to stop Mr Panic from standing, and so give him the aura of a persecuted martyr.

Ballots are scheduled for 20 December for the parliament and presidency of Serbia and Montenegro and for the federal parliament. The Yugoslav presidency, held by Dobrica Cosic, is not up for election.

The unconcealed hopes in Western countries that Mr Milosevic can be forced out of office are unlikely to be realised. With only three weeks before the poll the opposition look as incapable as ever of piecing together an alternative strategy to Mr Milosevic. Most opposition parties, in any case, share the desire of Mr Milosevic's Socialists to create a greater Serbia out of Croatia and Bosnia. The main dispute centres on the methods and how best to wriggle out of the United Nations sanctions imposed on Serbia and Montenegro.

Buoyed by military triumphs in Bosnia and the relative ease with which Serbia has thwarted international sanctions, Mr Milosevic seems assured of a handsome victory at the polls. His most formidable tool remains an absolute control over the state radio and television stations, which have effectively spread the idea that Mr Panic is a CIA agent backed by a consortium of enemies of Serbia, including the Vatican.

Despite his poor chances of winning, Mr Panic may have opted to pursue a strategy aimed at establishing himself after the electons as the only credible rival to Mr Milosevic, by winning a respectable portion of the votes.

Meanwhile, in Bosnia, a truce between the Croatian army and Bosnian Serb forces had scant effect on the fighting in the republic, as Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims were not included in the ceasefire. The unusual agreement was the first time Croatia has admitted direct military involvement in Bosnia. In Geneva the UN Human Rights Commissioner was expected to adopt a resolution blaming Serbian forces for the 'human tragedy' in Bosnia.