Violence feared as mood worsens ahead of rally led by Orthodox patriarch

 

ORTHODOX Patriarch Pavle will lead a religious procession through Belgrade today, heightening risks of violence between police and opposition protesters in a deepening political crisis.

Several protesters have already been injured in clashes with police at rallies over the weekend.

Traditionally pro government Orthodox clerics have sided with the opposition in their nine week campaign against election fraud and protesters may well use the St Sava Day procession to undercut a police ban on protests.

With the Socialists digging in against pressure to concede election losses and loosening the leash on riot police, tempers are fraying.

At least three demonstrators were injured on Saturday when riot police baton charged a crowd as it tried to make its way to join a student rally in the capital. A warning of thinning patience has came from Mr Vuk Draskovic, one of the leaders of the three party opposition coalition, Zajedno (Together).

"The people's patience has its limits and their anger could explode with all these baton charges by the police," he told a rally of 20,000 people in Belgrade last night.

Protesting students, involved in a week long stand off with riot police, have become a symbol of opposition defiance. They received support from an unusual quarter yesterday when about 100 serving and former officers with the Federal Yugoslav army joined them in their protest. Delegations of judges, lawyers, actors and doctors have also come out in support. The protests are the biggest challenge to left wing rule in Serbia since 1945 and, though overwhelmingly peaceful so far, could degenerate into bloody unrest, some analysts say.

Since Thursday, riot police have pummelled protesters, including women and children, and blocked roads in several Serbian cities, seriously injuring seven.

Analysts expected today's procession to remain peaceful because Patriarch Pavle's presence would restrain political passions, and police were unlikely to interfere with a religious event.

But there are risks that demonstrators will branch out from the procession to stage their own marches, pursued by police.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mr Igor Ivanov, arrived in Belgrade yesterday to offer help in defusing tensions, which he called explosive.

A group of Russian parliamentary deputies is also in Belgrade to meet representatives of all parties.

A team from the Organisation for Security and Co operation in Europe (OSCE) invited by the President, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, to investigate the election dispute concluded that Zajedno won all 14 disputed towns.

But with Mr Milosevic's approval, Socialist Party bosses in 10 cities, including Belgrade, have resisted any surrender of power, resorting to legalistic obstruction in pliant courts.

Zajedno leaders claim the Socialists are turning more intransigent and preparing to enlist the help of violent Serb ultra nationalists to suppress street dissent.