10,000 students bang pots and pans in election protest

 

SOME 10,000 students marched through Belgrade yesterday blowing whistles and banging pots, pans and drums to protest against alleged election fraud that cost the opposition its victory in November's local elections.

At least a quarter of a million people had greeted the New Year in the city centre in a rally which feature ringing alarm clocks as an ear splitting rebuff to President Slobodan Milosevic.

The student's march was timed to symbolically drown out the evening newscast on state television, which is accused by the opposition of biased cover of the daily demonstrations of the past six weeks.

"The students are making a terrific din, banging pots and pans and people on sidewalks are also banging pots and pans," a witness said.

The students defied a ban by the Serbian ministry of the interior on their walks in the city centre, but police stood by and permitted the march.

After turning out its largest crowd yet for the New Year protest, the opposition Zajedno (Together) coalition scheduled another demonstration for today.

But the autocratic Mr Milosevic ended 1996 still ignoring the protests and telling federal Yugoslavia in his New Year's message that it had been a very good year.

Western sources said Mr Milosevic and the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, Mr Milan Milutinovic, also snubbed a group of European Union diplomats who tried on Tuesday to hand deliver a message urging democratic changes in Serbia.

They found a deputy foreign minister and came away with the impression that Serbian authorities were ready to respond to pressure for democratisation, give teeth by Western threats to withhold financial aid for Yugoslavia's ruined economy.

A report by the Organisation for Security and Co operation in Europe (OSCE) recommends that Mr Milosevic acknowledge the Zajedno victories and initiate broader democratic reforms.

But diplomats in Belgrade also said the government was trying hard to postpone the decision as long as possible.

"We are now being told to expect a response sometime next week," one Belgrade based diplomat said.

Mr Milosevic should have responded to the recommendation in one week but his calculated disregard of the opposition poured cold water on hopes that the issue could be promptly resolved.

In his New Year message on state television and radio, Mr Milosevic pledged free market reforms in a possible sop to Western concerns.