Panic exhorts voters to choose peace over war

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The Independent Online
THE presidential hopeful, Milan Panic, closed his election campaign last night in Belgrade with a plea to tens of thousands of cheering supporters to turn their backs on Slobodan Milosevic's politics of war and confrontation and embrace his message of peace and reconciliation with the West.

He urged voters to make a historic choice on Sunday between peace and war. In Serbia and abroad the election is viewed as a fateful moment in Serbian history, when the 7 million-strong electorate will decide whether to continue down the road to all-out war in the Balkans, or stage a radical last-minute turn around.

As Mr Milosevic stumped round the strife-ridden province of Kosovo, where modern Serbian nationalism stirred to life and catapulted him into power in 1987, Mr Panic accused the incumbent president of 'building a Chinese wall around Serbia' and proclaimed the country's paramount national interest was restoring peace in ex-Yugoslavia.

The 100,000 crowd was not as large perhaps as some opposition leaders hoped. It appeared to confirm the pollsters' view that the two rivals are running neck and neck. The latest polls say Mr Panic enjoys a big lead in big cities and among the young, but he lags behind in rural areas and in the rusting southern industrial belt. People there are less worried about Western sanctions and inclined towards Mr Milosevic's nationalist slogans. They also rely on the state-run media for information.

In Belgrade, where the effects of Western sanctions are keenly felt and the independent television and radio most effective, Mr Panic is ahead, with 69 per cent, to Mr Milosevic's 31 per cent.

Since he returned from a successful business career in the US to Yugoslavia in July, Mr Panic has worked a miracle by uniting most of Serbia's opposition parties under one banner. The opposition coalition, Depos, has climbed steadily in the polls to the point where they now rival Mr Milosevic's Socialists in popularity. But the electoral race has scarcely been free or fair by Western standards. Despite agreements on the use of the media, state television has strained to blacken Mr Panic and show Mr Milosevic as Serbia's saviour.

Each night of the two-week camaign, the television has filled the screen with the pudgy-faced Mr Milosevic opening factories, addressing adoring crowds and even, once, discovering an oil field in northern Serbia.

Mr Panic has failed to win the vital backing of ethnic minorities, who make up a third of the population of the rump Yugoslavia, now comprising only Serbia and Montenegro. The leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians have proclaimed a boycott of the election, at a stroke depriving the opposition of more than 1 million potential votes. With both candidates probably heading for a run-off second round in just over two weeks' time, Sunday's vote is not likely to resolve the question of who runs Serbia.

Meanwhile in Bosnia, Muslims in the besieged enclave of Srebrenica, in the eastern part of the republic, launched an unexpected attack on the nearby Serbian-held town of Bratunac.

Several hundred Serb women fled over the bridge across the river Drina to Serbia proper yesterday, claiming Bosnian Muslims had fired on the town. The 70,000 inhabitants of Srebrenica recently received the first UN food delivery in eight months against a background of fierce opposition by local Serbs. Some UN officials fear the alleged attack on Bratunac, which was not independently verified, may be used as a pretext by Serbs for stopping food convoys to other besieged Muslim enclaves.

NEW YORK - The UN Security Council yesterday was considering a resolution to provide UN protection for European human rights monitors visiting Bosnian detention centres where Serbs are accused of systematically raping Muslim women, Reuter reports.

Initiated by France, the draft resolution asks the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to provide escorts for the European delegation, without suggesting any specifics. The 15-member council is expected to adopt the resolution today.

The document requests Mr Boutros-Ghali to 'take the necessary means available to him in the area to ensure the European delegation be allowed free and secure access to the places of detention', and to report back to the Council within 15 days.

The European Community at its summit in Edinburgh over the weekend decided to send a delegation to investigate the camps following reports of the rapes of Muslim women and girls.

(Photograph omitted)