Russian foreign minister arrives in Belgrade to meet Kostunica - and Milosevic

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The Independent Online

As Belgrade residents caught up on sleep after an all-night celebration of the apparent collapse of Slobodan Milosevic's government, Russia sent its foreign minister on a delicate mission said to include planned talks with the Yugoslav president in his secret hideout.

As Belgrade residents caught up on sleep after an all-night celebration of the apparent collapse of Slobodan Milosevic's government, Russia sent its foreign minister on a delicate mission said to include planned talks with the Yugoslav president in his secret hideout.

Arriving in Belgrade, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov made no comment as his car left the airport toward the city. But his main priority appeared to be assessing the situation and establishing ties with any new government in the making in order to sustain Moscow's traditionally close relations with Yugoslavia.

Still, it seemed that Ivanov also was not prepared to shun officials of the Milosevic government still formally in charge.

He was greeted at the airport by Yugoslav Deputy Foreign Minister Zoran Novakovic, the state-run Tanjug news agency reported. And Tanjug cited an unnamed diplomatic source saying that Ivanov would meet Milosevic, as well as rival Vojislav Kostunica, whose supporters turned a rally into a pro-democracy revolt Thursday that swept away Milosevic's 13-year hold on power

Russian President Vladimir Putin had refrained from endorsing opposition claims of victory in the Yugoslav presidential election, which could leave Moscow at a disadvantage.

Another possible issue for talks could be the future of Milosevic, who may be looking for refuge abroad. Russia has not indicated if it would be willing to give him or members of his family shelter or if it might encourage another former Soviet republic to do so.

Tanjug quoted Novakovic as saying that "Russia wishes to help that the situation in Yugoslavia ... is peacefully resolved."

Through the night, tens of thousands danced and sang in celebrations fed by the excitement of having seized Yugoslavia's parliament and other key symbols of the Milosevic regime in an afternoon of rioting Thursday.

Tanjug, taken over by the opposition, said army commanders met in Belgrade but issued no statement after several hours of talks.

But the private news agency Beta cited Col. Dragan Velickovic from the army press service as saying the army would not "interfere in the democratic process in Serbia," the main Yugoslav republic where the power struggle was playing out.

Tanjug, which has good military contacts, also said that the army, whose top brass strongly supported Milosevic, will apparently stay out of the political fray.

No movements by military units were reported anywhere in the country on Friday.

Momcilo Perisic, a former army chief of staff and now an opposition figure, said he had contacted Yugoslavia's military leaders and that they had promised not to intervene.

In addition to Tanjug, all state-owned media were working normally Friday, broadcasting or publishing apologies for their past support for Milosevic.

Serb television occasionally flashed its logo during broadcasts, with the slogan: "This is the new free Serbian television."

Reflecting its new editorial stance, the station - which for the past decade vehemently criticized Milosevic's opponents, broadcast an interview with Kostunica, Thursday's rally-turned revolution and other events related to the apparent triumph of pro-democracy forces.

State-owned or past pro-Milosevic dailies issued special editions Friday, reflecting the change in their editorial policies.

Politika featured a front-page photograph of Kostunica, his arm raised triumphantly in the air over a headline reading: "Serbia on the road to democracy" with a subtitle calling Kostunica president.

Vecernje Novosti had a picture of crowds storming the parliament Thursday with a subtitle: "The Will of the People."

Crowds that had surged through the city in the predawn hours had thinned by late Friday morning, as people slept after a night on the streets. Behind a brass band, a group of several hundred people from the town of Cacak in central Serbia marched down an avenue covered with litter.

A lone traffic policemen hid inside the entrance to an office building, watching the procession.

"God forbid that they see my uniform," said the terrified officer who declined to identify himself. Nearby, the ransacked and torched parliament building smoldered as dozens of firemen made sure that the multiple fires were extinguished.

The whereabouts of Milosevic and his family were unknown, although opposition campaign manager Zoran Djindjic said he was believed to have fled to a hide-out outside of Bor, near the borders with Romania and Bulgaria.

Governments of the two Balkan neighbors ordered their armed forces to remain alert against any attempt by Milosevic or his allies to slip out of Yugoslavia.

Despite the euphoria of the crowds, aides of Kostunica remained wary, suspicious that their old adversary might yet find a way to strike back.

Kostunica also appealed to people from the countryside to stream into Belgrade for more rallies during today to secure the victory he claims he won during disputed presidential elections on September 24.

Western governments were heartened by the prospect of an end to Milosevic's 13-year rule. At the White House, U.S. President Bill Clinton support said: "The people are trying to get their country back." British Prime Minister Tony Blair said of Milosevic: "Your time is up. Go now."