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Milosevic offers power to the people

After 78 days of protests, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia yesterday apparently surrendered to the will of his people and ordered his government to recognise opposition victories in the local elections.

But last night youths looking for a return match with riot police stoned traffic police and smashed windows, provoking shooting from plainclothes policemen and increasing tension in Belgrade. The Prime Minister, Marko Marjanovic, is to implement Mr Milosevic's demand today, according to state television, and will ask parliament to enact a law allowing councillors from Zajedno, the opposition coalition, to take control of the city hall in Belgrade and 13 other large towns.

However, Zajedno leaders are cautious, aware that Mr Milosevic has used such concessions only to gain time.

Zoran Djindjic, the most charismatic of the triumvirate leading the opposition, said yesterday that Serbia's crisis had deepened since the poll on 17 November and that the Socialists would have to do more than acknowledge electoral defeat. The opposition also demands a free press and punishment of officials responsible for the electoral theft and the violent repression of demonstrators by riot police.

Earlier in the afternoon, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Belgrade's Republic Square. They cheered in response to news that Mr Milosevic had written to his Prime Minister seeking a resolution to the crisis, and urged the President to resign.

But despite the crowd's optimism, opposition leaders were wary. "We have not seen the letter and we will not talk about it," Vuk Draskovic said disdainfully, while Mr Djindjicwarned that the opposition would continue marching each day until all its demands are met.

"Milosevic has recognised the result he should have accepted on 17 November, and since then many things have happened to deepen our political crisis," Mr Djindjic said. "This will resolve one part of the crisis, but not all, and we will continue our protests."

According to Tanjug, the official news agency, the President informed the Prime Minister, Mirko Marjanovic, that "electoral disputes ... have considerably hurt our country both internally and on an international level and that it is high time to put an end to the problem". The President has requested parliamentary approval of a "special law" designating as final the electoral results ratified by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. This is meant to imply that Serbia is acting more to appease the international community than bowing to pressure from the streets. "I would like to stress that the state's interest in promoting relations between our country and the OSCE and the international community as a whole far surpasses the importance of any number of council seats," the President wrote.

If this were true, Mr Milosevic would have implemented the election results when the OSCE ratified them in December. But while Serbia has bowed to international pressure in the past over the war in Bosnia, Mr Milosevic does not want to be seen giving in to the ordinary people airing their grievances on the street.

"I will not believe this until I see Zajedno take their seats and form Belgrade's new city council," said one sceptical local journalist. Vesna Pesic, the third Zajedno leader, said the regime had blown hot and cold throughout the crisis. "They recognise the results, then they beat us up ... at the same time."

The crowd dispersed peacefully watched by at least 1,000 riot police but a few dozen youths hung around and stoned traffic police.

By 7.30pm, when citizens whistle and bang pots and pans to drown the propaganda on state television, demonstrators and some hooligans were mingled in Republic Square, muddying the waters of protest. Some youths among them were clearly determined to provoke violent scenes and within half an hour hundreds of riot police were back in the square.

Bulgaria poll date

Sofia (Reuters) -- Bulgaria's ruling Socialists agreed yesterday to hold early elections in April, defusing a tense showdown with the opposition after 30 days of anti-government protests, a joint statement said.

The statement by the Socialists and opposition parties said that they had agreed that President Petar Stoyanov "should set early general elections in the second 10 days of April".