Tens of thousands are converging on Belgrade

Protesters are intent on their bid to dislodge Milosevic
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Tens of thousands of protesters seeking to oust President Slobodan Milosevic are streaming towards Belgrade to join a mass rally billed as the final push against the embattled leader. Police are offering little resistance to the huge convoys.

Tens of thousands of protesters seeking to oust President Slobodan Milosevic are streaming towards Belgrade to join a mass rally billed as the final push against the embattled leader. Police are offering little resistance to the huge convoys.

Protesters used a front-end loader to shove aside two sand trucks used by authorities to try to block a 20-kilometer (12-mile) line of cars and buses traveling from the opposition stronghold of Cacak. Riot police stood by without intervening.

At another roadblock, trucks were pushed away and demonstrators negotiated with a police commander to be allowed through. Elsewhere angry protesters overturned a police car and dumped it into a ditch.

Opposition leaders have issued an ultimatum" for Milosevic to resign by 3 p.mtoday; the time set for the Belgrade rally. "This flame will engulf the whole of Belgrade," said Vladan Batic, an opposition leader.

Although authorities appear unwilling to strike back at the crowds, Milosevic turned to other options to try to cling to power.

Yugoslavia's highest court lhas invalidated part of the September 24 presidential elections, which Milosevic's opponents say was won outright by his rival Vojislav Kostunica.

It was not immediately clear if this means a complete repeat of the elections would be required. A run-off election was scheduled for Sunday, but opposition forces said they would boycott the vote. The court was to release a full ruling Thursday.

The constitutional court ruling - by judges loyal to the president - could be aimed at allowing Milosevic to stay in power longer. His term would have expired next June if he hadn't called early elections and now he might be trying to get back to the previous status as if the elections didn't take place.

Milosevic's government conceded that Kostunica gained more votes than Milosevic, but that he failed to win the majority legally required for outright victory.

The court ruling came just hours after police were forced to abandoned plans to take over a striking coal mine after confronting fearless anti-Milosevic crowds - a stunning development unprecedented in a former communist nation with no history of major worker uprisings.

"He saw that he cannot push through the second round against the majority of the people," opposition campaign manager Zoran Djindjic said of Milosevic. "His solution is ... to create a new situation for totally new elections" allowing him to cling to power for further months.

The tribunal met in emergency session to hear claims by the 18-party opposition coalition that Milosevic's cronies manipulated election results by using a sophisticated software program.

Opposition leaders said they obtained a copy of the program.

Even before the court ruling, passions were high.

Zoran Zivkovic, the mayor of Nis, the nation's third largest city, said any violence on the part of Milosevic's forces Thursday would be met by violence from crowds wanting his ouster,

"I'm telling the army and police that we won't stop," said Zivkovic, addressing 30,000 anti-Milosevic demonstrators in Nis Wednesday. "We are going to Belgrade to finish off what we had started in the elections."

Before the court decision, top opposition figures had been buoyed by the police capitulation at the Kolubara mine complex. They rushed to join more than 10,000 protesters there and openly predicted Milosevic's quick demise.

"Serbia has risen so that one man would leave," Kostunica told cheering workers and their supporters at the Kolubara mine near Lazarevac, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Belgrade.

Police in riot gear had occupied the strip mine complex in an attempt to break up the largest of the nationwide strikes against Milosevic. But they couldn't contain a swelling crowd that heeded the workers' cry for help.

With sunset approaching, the police gave up. Most police withdrew from their barricades and mingled with strikers inside the compound.

From the beginning of the civil disobedience campaign, the mine was a pivotal point. It employs 7,000 workers and supplies major power plants.

The mine walkout was the forerunner of other strikes; state telecommunications company workers announced they would stay off the job, and city bus drivers and garbage collectors in Belgrade refused to work. It was the first widespread strike action in Yugoslavia's 55-year history.

In an open letter Wednesday to Milosevic, Kostunica said, "it will be better for you to recognize" electoral defeat or risk "the danger of open clashes" nationwide.

Even before the court ruling, however, Milosevic, showed no signs he was contemplating defeat.

His prime minister, Momir Bulatovic, repeated the position that Milosevic can remain in office until June 2001 regardless of the election outcome. That's when Milosevic's present term runs out.