Envoys fear police action against protests

 

SERBIAN opposition leaders yesterday increased the pressure on President Slobodan Milosevic by planning a campaign of civil disobedience and urging more external pressure from the West.

Meanwhile, diplomats in Belgrade said they feared that police are preparing to act against the demonstrators as soon as the New Year holiday period ends in a few days.

"There is a limit to how much Milosevic can take without becoming a laughing stock in Belgrade," a senior Western envoy said. "His authority is crumbling as we speak - among the army, the police, his own Socialist party ranks and even the apolitical public. His credibility in the West is almost gone. He must put a stop to this one way or the other."

Following the success of a huge rally on the eve of the Orthodox Christmas on Monday, opposition forces yesterday threatened a variety of new acts of protest in a bid to force Mr Milosevic's hand. The opposition leader, Mr Zoran Djindjic, urged Western leaders to put pressure on the beleaguered Serbian president to recognise opposition wins in the local elections held last November.

On Monday, some 200,000 protesters packed central Belgrade in a rally purportedly to celebrate Christmas Eve, despite a police ban on demonstrations in force since December 25th. The rally marked the second time in two days that the opposition had circumvented the police ban.

As protesters were gathering for Monday's Mass, a bomb exploded in another part of Belgrade outside the headquarters of the Yugoslav Left (JUL) party, a junior member in Mr Milosevic's ruling coalition.

The 50-day stand-off between the regime and opposition began when the government annulled opposition victories in municipal elections held on November 17th. International mediators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), subsequently urged the leadership to back down and reinstate opposition wins in 14 Serbian cities and towns after being invited to Belgrade by Mr Milosevic.

The Orthodox Church has backed the protesters and yesterday the opposition received further support as the deans of nine out of 24 faculties at Belgrade University sent a letter to Mr Milosevic urging him to climb down.

Diplomats believe the Serbian president has not stamped out the demonstrations so far because of uncertain support even among the stoutest pillar of his authority - the dreaded state security police.

However, in Bonn yesterday the German Foreign Minister, Mr Klaus Kinkel, said it was incorrect to assume the Serbian leader would be ousted. It would be "false to think that Milosevic will not be there for much longer," Mr Kinkel said.

Regarding Germany's stance on the Serbian crisis, Mr Kinkel said there "could be no question of massive support for the opposition".

The situation is of particular interest to Bonn given that Germany has sheltered some 135,000 nationals from federal Yugoslavia, and in October signed an agreement with Belgrade on their repatriation.