Riots present challenge to Kostunica's leadership

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The Independent Online

Prison riots spread across Serbia yesterday, with buildings set ablaze and shots fired, in an early test for the Yugoslav President, Vojislav Kostunica.

Prison riots spread across Serbia yesterday, with buildings set ablaze and shots fired, in an early test for the Yugoslav President, Vojislav Kostunica.

Inmates are demanding better conditions and say they should all benefit from an amnesty promised by Mr Kostunica to political prisoners, mostly Kosovo Albanians arrested under the rule of former president Slobodan Milosevic.

The third riot in two days started yesterday in Zabela prison, in Mr Milosevic's home town of Pozarevac, 50 miles east of Belgrade. The demands of inmates, who set a part of the prison complex on fire, matched the demands of Serb prisoners who launched their revolt on Sunday. The chief warden, Stipe Marusic, said guards fired warning shots in the air. Inmates said several prisoners were wounded, at least twoseriously.

The rioting started on Sunday in Sremska Mitrovica, 45 miles north-west of Belgrade. The prison houses 1,300 inmates, including 50 foreigners and six prisoners on death row.

On Monday, prisoners rioted in Nis, 145 miles south of Belgrade. A prisoner died after he fell from the seventh floor. A female prisoner said the rioters were raping and molesting women. inmates. Police surround the three prisons, but have not intervened. The rioters have barricaded themselves on the rooftops.

Ministry of Justice officials travelled from prison to prison, negotiating and promising wide-ranging changes.

Hundreds of ethnic Albanian inmates were evacuated from all three prisons to safer places. The authorities fear the rage of the inmates could turn against the Albanians, who have refused to join in the riots.

The riots pose a challenge to Mr Kostunica's authority. His administration moved quickly to announce the amnesty law for the hundreds of ethnic Albanians imprisoned during last year's Nato bombing. The law would affect political prisoners, mostly Kosovo Albanians, sentenced by the Milosevic regime for alleged "terrorism". There are also thousands of Serb draft dodgers and deserters who would benefit from the amnesty.

Apparently, the riots started after the Serb prisoners learnt that some 400 ethnic Albanians, roughly half of those still in Serbian jails, were quietly released a few days ago.

The new federal police minister, Zoran Zivkovic, said the change of regime did not mean a general amnesty for all, because there was a difference between political prisoners and ordinary criminals.

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