Serbia tense on eve of elections

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SERBIA was tense yesterday on the eve of elections as the rival presidential candidates, Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Panic, ended their campaigns running neck- and-neck in the polls.

Nearly 7 million voters are eligible to vote tomorrow in an election that is widely seen as a referendum on Mr Milosevic's policies of war and confrontation with the outside world.

The two-week election campaign for the post of President of Serbia, seats in the parliaments of Serbia and Montenegro, and in the federal parliament, has been marred by controversy over whether campaigning has been free or fair. Opposition parties backing Mr Panic, who complained of outrageous bias in Serbia's state-run television and radio reports, were supported yesterday by European Community monitors. They threatened to pull out if they were not allowed to observe the counting of votes.

In a statement, the European monitors accused the television channel of repreatedly 'broadcasting statements (about Mr Panic) in which he is accused of treason and called a criminal', of censoring opposition broadcasts, and of devoting excessive coverage to Mr Milosevic.

On the outcome of tomorrow's vote, which is expected in the middle of next week, depend Western leaders' hopes of ending the carnage in Bosnia and of obtaining a lasting peace settlement for the whole of former Yugoslavia, before the fighting in Bosnia engulfs more of the Balkans.

Mr Milosevic has proved an intransigent exponent of the most violent form of Serb nationalism. While he is in power, the return of peace to the former Yugoslavia looks distant.

In the Bosnian capital, the EC peace envoy, Lord Owen, denied his peace initiative had achieved nothing: 'There is a real readiness, which there wasn't in September, to talk.' But Bosnia's President, Alija Izetbegovic, said he did not think Lord Owen's latest mission to Sarajevo would yield any breakthough.

If there has been a lull in fighting in some parts of Bosnia, that could be because the Serbs have achieved all - and more - of their original military goals.

At the same time, Bosnian Serb leaders have opened a diplomatic offensive aimed at heading off the threat of armed intervention. They are offering to allow civilians to leave the Bosnian capital, which they have unsuccessfully besieged for eight months, and yesterday closed down an infamous detention centre at Manjaca, northern Bosnia. The remaining 2,420 prisoners left yesterday by bus for Croatia.

In Sarajevo, few people took up the Serbian offer to leave the city, partly due to pressure form the local authorities. Sarajevo radio urged residents to stay off the streets, citing the danger of shelling, to deter civilians from gathering at the departure point beside one of the city's churches. The UN underscored its opposition to the plan: some officials claimed it smacked of 'ethnic cleansing' by subtler means.

The Bosnian Serb parliament on Thursday proclaimed a unilateral end to hostilities, which is due to come into effect after eight days. Radovan Karadzic, the self- styled President of the Bosnian Serb state, singled out for praise Western countries that have blocked outside military intervention in the republic - where well- armed Serbs have seized more than 70 per cent of the territory - saying they were 'better-informed about the true nature of the conflict'.

In spite of the Bosnian Serb proclamation, there is little sign that the end of the war is in sight. Fighting raged round the besieged Muslim enclaves of Gradacac, in northern Bosnia, and in eastern Bosnia, where a small-scale Muslim offensive at Srebrenica has sparked the flight of several thousand Serbs, mostly women, from the neighbouring town of Bratunac into Serbia proper.

Serbs claim at least 109 people died in the Muslim attack. The UN yesterday dispatched 17 trucks of food and clothing to some 4,000 Serb refugees on the Serbian side of the border.

(Photograph omitted)