At least 40 hurt as riot police clash with protesters

 

AT LEAST 40 demonstrators' were injured as riot police fought running street battles with opposition supporters in central Belgrade late yesterday, using water cannon and baton charges to clear the streets of the Serbian capital.

Demonstrators, seeking the reinstatement of local election victories by the opposition last November, fought back with stones and bottles and built makeshift barricades of burning tyres.

Witnesses saw several people with blood pouring down their faces after police charges.

They also said they experienced a burning sensation in their noses and mouths, suggesting that teargas was being used.

At least 40 people asked us for help," a nurse said. He did not say whether the injured were seriously hurt.

It was the most serious violence by President Slobodan Milosevic's uniformed riot police against protesters in almost three months of daily street demonstrations against his authoritarian rule.

Independent student Radio Index said "many people" were beaten by stampeding police in central Zeleni Venac Square and Terazije boulevard and urgent appeals were made for ambulances.

B-92, another independent, radio, quoted witnesses as saying Ms Vesna Pesic, a leader of the opposition Zajedno (Together) bloc, who is in her 50s, and an actor, Ljuba Tadic, were beaten during a melee with police.

"As soon as the police moved in, I saw from the top of the steps, the police clubbing Vesna Pesic," a witness, Ljuba Glusev, said.

Ms Pesic heads the Civic Alliance (GSS) and is one of the three leaders of Zajedno, along with Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic.

A Reuters television camera man filming the onrushing police was seriously beaten and his gear, damaged.

The trouble began after anti riot police refused to allow a relatively small contingent of several hundred opposition supporters to cross a river bridge into the city centre for a 77th day of pro democracy demonstrations.

Larger groups of protesters hearing the news, turned away from their usual destination in Republic Square and blocked both ends of the Brankov bridge in a stand off lasting about three hours.

Riot police finally moved in forcibly to clear demonstrators from the bridge. Witnesses said they saw police using their shields to push protesters back.

The police intervened at both ends of the bridge, laying into the protesters with clubs, according to B-92.

Some protesters burned tyres, hurled bottles at police lines and threw concrete blocks into the road, apparently to impede the water cannon trucks.

Demonstrators, some of them drenched by the water cannon, screamed "traitors" and "fascists at police.

"They (police) also used their, batons to hit people," said one cameraman. They moved fast and the protesters fell back."

After the bridge was cleared, protesters and police clashed in the city's old quarter.

Water cannon doused protesters, who threw stones, bricks and bottles as burning tyres lit up the night sky in a lurid red.

Traffic resumed over the Brankov bridge just before midnight, with riot police clad in helmets and flak jackets lining the road to keep back remnant groups of jeering protesters.