Protests fall on deaf ears in Belgrade

More angry, more noisy and more frustrated than ever, pro-democracy demonstrators began a fourth week of street protests in Belgrade yesterday, struggling to find a way of extracting concessions from Serbia's master of political conjuring tricks, President Slobodan Milosevic.

Impatient at their lack of progress but resolved not to resort to violence, thousands of students and other supporters of the Zajedno (Together) opposition movement gave vent to their disgust as they denounced the latest refusal of the Socialist authorities to recognise opposition victories in last month's municipal elections.

"[Milosevic] is playing tricks on the Serbian people, just as he has been doing for the last six or seven years," said Dragan Presic, an opposition supporter.

Belgrade students turned out in extra numbers to express outrage at police treatment of Dejan Bulatovic, a student demonstrator who was arrested after displaying an effigy of Mr Milosevic in prison clothes. "He was given the worst Gestapo treatment. His nose was broken, he was beaten on the chest, head and stomach, and he was given help only after he fainted," student leaders said.

Despite 22 days of anti-government demonstrations on a scale unseen in Serbia since 1945, Mr Milosevic seems confident he can outwit the opposition and ignore rising criticism from the West. A rare insight into his attitude to the opposition was provided by Kati Marton, an American campaigner for media freedoms who met the President last weekend.

Ms Marton, the wife of Richard Holbrooke, who brokered last year's peace deal in Bosnia, said she had asked Mr Milosevic to sign a manifesto promising to end the government's abuses of media liberties. "I handed him that manifesto, which he proceeded to tear up," she said. "I don't think he's in a mood to give up, not at all."

Most rural areas have been kept in the dark about the crisis thanks to the government's control of television. A few people who arrived in Belgrade yesterday said they were astonished to see thousands of marchers.

Only two cities, Novi Sad in northern Serbia and Nis in the south, have experienced similar unrest. Demonstrators in Nis, for years a Socialist stronghold,hurled a television from the top of a building to symbolise their contempt for the official media.

The opposition still hopes that with the help of Western pressure and continuing protests in Belgrade, they may win control of the capital's municipal council. Even the Serbian Supreme Court's decision to award the local elections to the Socialists is subject to appeal at federal level in rump Yugoslavia.

n Zagreb (AP) - The Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, awarded a medal at the weekend to General Tihomir Blaskic, a Bosnian Croat indicted as a war-crimes suspect, a Bosnian Croat spokesman said yesterday. The general is in custody awaiting trial in The Hague over the massacre of Muslims by Croat troops under his command.