PODGORICA, Yugoslavia — Hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets of Belgrade yesterday, taking control of the parliament building and state-run news media in a massive uprising that shook the iron rule of President Slobodan Milosevic.
Milosevic stayed out of sight all day, and early today was reported to be holed up in a bunker in southern Serbia, surrounded by troops. It was unclear if he was preparing to yield to the opposition or strike back with military force.
An opposition leader, Zoran Djindjic, warned that Milosevic was preparing “a coup” to regain control, Reuters reported. That would pit Serb against Serb, testing the loyalty of his troops as never before. While many senior commanders of the police force and military are likely to do Milosevic’s bidding, it’s much less certain that lower- ranking officers and troops would go along.
The test came yesterday for many in Yugoslavia’s police force. Again and again, when confronted by protesters, they stepped aside, some even joining the crowd that was demanding Milosevic recognize the Sept. 24 election of Vojislov Kostunica as president.
The demonstrations began quietly, then some protesters started to hurl rocks, set police cars ablaze and storm government buildings. Security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at first, and more than a dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled toward the protesters. Then they stopped.
“Go home. We won’t fight you,” a police officer said outside the burning state television and radio building as he handed his shield, helmet and baton over to the crowd. “We won’t do anything against our people any longer.”
In other areas, elite anti-terrorist police were seen taking off their helmets and mingling with the crowd. Some waved white flags.
Police officers emerged with their hands on their heads from the state television studio, which broadcast pop music programs and old movies during the historic day. nightfall the opposition controlled three television stations. The state-run Tanjug news agency, Milosevic’s longtime mouthpiece, also changed sides and began calling Kostunica the elected president.
At least 20 people were reported hurt, some from gunshots, witness said. Looting was modest and shops appeared to be targeted selectively. A perfume store owned by Milosevic’s son, Marko, was stripped bare.
Kostunica spoke from a balcony outside City Hall in Belgrade.
“Dear liberated Serbia,” he began. He declared himself the new president, called for calm and urged the protesters to go back to work in the morning.
“Serbia is running a victory lap, and along that track, there is no Slobodan Milosevic,” Kostunica said.
In a later televised interview, broadcast and translated by CNN, he said “Normal economic recovery of the country will be like medicine to our souls.”
He also said state television would no longer represent only the ruling party and that all news media would be allowed to report objectively.
Tanks surrounded Milosevic’s residence outside the old central city in the exclusive neighborhood of Dedinje. His political Socialist Party of Serbia vowed to “fight back with all means to secure peaceful life.”
The army did not declare its plans, but BETA, an independent news agency, quoted army sources as saying troops would stay in their barracks.
“Emotions have been unleashed that no one has control of,” said Sonja Biserko, head of Yugoslav chapter of the Helsinki Federation in Belgrade. No one expected such large crowds or such a powerful release of frustration, she said. “It is like a revolution, believe me. This really is the end of the Serbian illusion, which is a century old. Now they are pulling down the leader, the dictator who is the symbol of it. Apparently, he is being brought down by the same people who carried him up.”
At the White House, President Clinton gave the Yugoslav opposition his backing. “The people are trying to get their country back, and we support democracy and the will of the Serbian people,” he said. Kostunica has some strong disagreements with the United States, but “this is not a question of whether he agrees with us. All we want for the Serbian people is what we want for people everywhere, the right to freely choose their own leaders,” Clinton said.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the message to Milosevic was clear “Go now, before any more lives are lost, before there is any more destruction.”
Milosevic suffered his first defeat in 13 years in the Sept. 24 election, but his government said the vote was so close that a runoff was needed. Amid allegations of massive vote fraud on behalf of Milosevic, Kostunica declared outright victory and called for nationwide strikes that for the first time in modern Yugoslav history engaged thousands of miners. Thousands of protesters supported the miners Wednesday at Kolubara, the country’s largest fuel source for electrical power.
Across the country, strikers blocked roads, cut rail lines and shut shops. The regime countered by instituting blackouts, which they blamed on the striking miners.
As protesters gathered from across the country, the Milosevic-appointed federal Constitutional Court on Wednesday voided the election. One judge told Radio Free Europe that the process must begin again and that Milosevic was free to serve until his term expired in June.
The maneuver fired up the protesters even more.
Caravans of buses, motorcycles, cars and trucks had to push past police blockades to arrive for yesterday’s Belgrade rally. Accompanied by drummers, members of a group of independent economists marched to the public prosecutor’s office and swore out an arrest warrant for Milosevic, accusing him of election fraud.
Around 130 p.m. a small group of men, most from the opposition strongholds of Kraljevo and Cacak, tried to storm the parliament building, but were forced into retreat by police tear gas. Demonstrators threw rocks at about 150 members of the security forces, but opposition leaders calmed the crowd.
Slavica Popovic, a 27-year-old shop clerk, expressed the long-festering frustration. “My life has had no joy for 10 years,” she said.
At about 4 p.m. the crowd broke through the police cordon and forced its way into the parliament building. Police inside fired tear gas. Protesters rushed the building and threw rocks and kicked out windows. Then they stood on balconies waving Yugoslav flags and tossing ripped books and sheaths of paper to the ground.
Smoke and flames shot out a few of the lower windows of the parliament building, but did not appear to spread.
One of the television stations was also set on fire and flames were visible out the first and second floor windows. Milan Andjelic, 23, a protester, stood outside with a police shield and helmet in hand.
“We are going to win this time. No surrender,” he said.
His friend, a 27-year-old medical student named Nenad Topic, declared yesterday a day for victory. Brandishing his trophy, a police baton, he said, “I have my stick now, whiskey in my pocket and all the time in the world. Who is going to stop me from freeing this country?”
(Knight Ridder correspondent Biljana Vasic contributed to this report from Belgrade.)
By Daniel Rubin, Knight Ridder Newspapers, POSTED Oct. 6, 2000 at 12:01 AM