Thousands defy Milosevic with massive protest

Opposition supporters fill the streets in a 'night of destiny' for Yugoslavia amid rumours that members of the regime have already fled
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The Independent Online

Serbia stood at an historic crossroads last night, as tens of thousands of people converged on the centre of Belgrade for what looked set to be one of the biggest protest rallies that the Yugoslav capital has ever seen.

Serbia stood at an historic crossroads last night, as tens of thousands of people converged on the centre of Belgrade for what looked set to be one of the biggest protest rallies that the Yugoslav capital has ever seen.

The demonstrators defied the regime which earlier ordered armoured vehicles on to the streets of Belgrade and told police to rip up a makeshift stage opposition supporters had erected for the rally on the square in front of the Yugoslav federal assembly parliament. To avoid giving the regime an excuse for a violent clampdown, the opposition moved the venue to Republic square, another central location.

Thousands streamed into the square in response to the opposition's calls for a show of "people power". Armed with nothing more than banners and thousands of baby rattles handed out by the organisers to be shaken at the face of the defeated leader, the huge crowd demanded the recognition of the opposition victory in Sundays' elections.

The rattles were a symbolic reference to the triumphant post-election slogan, "We have broken you like a rattle". Demonstrators also carried badges bearing a single autumn leaf, with the slogan " Pao je." He's fallen.

Vojislav Kostunica who, according to the opposition calculations gained an absolute 52 per cent victory against Mr Milosevic, addressed the crowds.

Even while the regime wondered whether to use violence to stay in power, Belgrade filled with a flurry of rumours: that Mira Markovic, Mr Milosevic's powerful wife, has fled with the family to Moscow; that Mr Milosevic has started negotiating for asylum in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan; that the Defence Minister is seeking to jump ship; and that Ivica Dacic, leader of Mr Milosevic's Socialist Party in Belgrade, has resigned. Even if none of those stories prove true, the fact theywere multiplying by the minute was in itself a sign of the "last-stand" atmosphere that has overtaken Belgrade.

The venue for the rally was changed at the last moment after the authorities dismantled a podium and ordered the removal of the sound system, arguing the rally would disturb the work of the election commission. The commission, at Mr Milosevic's behest, declared on Tuesday that the opposition gained 48 per cent of the vote, and that the election must therefore go to a run-off. The opposition categorically denied the claim.

But despite the crowds and mood of defiance the regime still seemed determined to hold firm. The Foreign Minister, Zivadin Jovanovic, appeared on television evening news for an interview-cum-tirade about the evil international pressure and the "so-called independent media" in Serbia.

After four Balkan wars - each of which has ended in humiliation for his own country and his own people - President Milosevic now faces his day of reckoning. If he admits the reality - that he has been defeated as president by Mr Kostunica - then the humiliation will be too great for any further power games to be played. If he does not admit the defeat, then the anger of the demonstrators will only grow. Violence will do little to change that. In short: many in Belgrade believe that the 13-year Milosevic era may be almost over.

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