Russia's warning as Yugoslav police ban opposition rally

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Russia has warned the West against interfering in Yugoslavia as it was revealed police have ordered opposition supporters to remove a stage for a rally against beaten President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.

Russia has warned the West against interfering in Yugoslavia as it was revealed police have ordered opposition supporters to remove a stage for a rally against beaten President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said said Russia stood firmly for the people of Yugoslavia to have full freedom to express their will without any internal or external pressure.

He added: "It is important not to allow destabilization of the situation, which would play into the hands only of those powers that are not interested in preserving a single Yugoslavia and restoring its place in the world arena."

Although he did not name any specific targets, Ivanov's comments seemed to be critical of the United States and the European Union, which have called for Milosevic to concede defeat in the Sunday election.

Both were also instrumental in launching NATO airstrikes last year against Yugoslavia over repression of ethnic Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo.

Russia ardently backed Milosevic during NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia last year, but has shown recent signs of trying to distance itself from the Yugoslav leader, who has been indicted as a war criminal by an international tribunal.

Meanwhile, Milosevic's opponents appealed to Belgraders to pour out into the streets to defend their apparent victory in presidential elections despite efforts by the regime to engineer a runoff.

Milosevic's police refused to permit organizers to use a central square for a rally and ordered workers to dismantle a stage erected there.

Police said the demonstration would disrupt the work of the election commission, which is located in the same building.

It was unclear whether the move was intended to ban any demonstration or was simply part of a war of nerves between the opposition and the authorities. Cedomir Jovanovic, a spokesman for the opposition, said: "They (regime) are just trying to increase tensions.

Jovanovic added: "Elections are not car races in which a contestant can catch up in the second round. Our victory is not negotiable."

He added the opposition would press ahead with the rally, either elsewhere in Belgrade or at the same venue, with simple loudspeaker.

With most of the ballot counted, opposition results showed challenger Vojislav Kostunica with 52.54 percent of the vote to Milosevic's 32.01 percent, Jovanovic said.

Yugoslavia's official electoral commission reported that Kostunica finished first with 48.22 percent while Milosevic earned 40.23 percent. Under Yugoslav law, a runoff is required since none of the candidates received more than 50 percent.

Opposition activists distributed 10,000 baby rattles in downtown Belgrade, calling on people to attend the mass evening rally and remind Milosevic that he was "busted" by shaking the toys.

A similar gathering was also announced in Nis, Serbia's third-largest city.

Milosevic has defied international and domestic appeals for him to step down and announced a runoff election against Kostunica, who in turn, insisted he won the election outright and rejected the possibility of a new race.

"We are talking about political fraud and blatant stealing of votes," Kostunica said.

"This is an offer which must be rejected."

He added that the opposition would defend its victory but avoid "careless moves which could raise tensions in society, which could lead to unforeseeable consequences."

An opposition delegation went to the Yugoslav parliament which is also the seat of the state commission, in an attempt to inspect the election commission's returns which they claim is short of 400,000 pro-Kostunica votes.

The guards, however, allowed only one member to enter briefly.

Delegate Nebojsa Bakarac said: "There is great fear among the commission."

Bakarac said he could not single-handedly inspect more than 5 million ballots and called on commission members to "publish the real results and act according to their conscience, without creating tensions."

The vote turnout was 64 percent, the commission said, far below the 74 percent figure given by the opposition.

International officials have reiterated calls for Milosevic to accept an opposition victory. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook agreed that there was no point in holding a runoff in Yugoslavia, declaring that "Milosevic is beaten."

He added: "All that is necessary is for Milosevic to get out of the way. He has been knocked out, he has now been counted out, now he should get out." Behind-the-scenes negotiations went on in Yugoslavia on possible realignments in the federal parliament where Milosevic's allies claimed to have won a majority.

Jovanovic indicated the opposition alliance had contacted members from Montenegro's leading Socialist People's Party, a traditional Milosevic ally, to try to win them over.

At the same time, Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the formerly influential Serbian Renewal Party, urged the ultranationalist Radical Party to join forces to bring down Milosevic's power group in the Serbian parliament. Both parties lost badly in Sunday's vote.

A runoff would give Milosevic time to maneuver, create more favorable conditions for himself, clamp down on opposition media and activists and resume his nationalist campaign portraying Kostunica as a "NATO lackey and Western stooge."