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Milosevic’s Foes Hail New President And Seize Cities

By Roy Gutman
NEWSDAY -- In a national uprising of stunning speed and breadth, opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic seized control of the capital, Belgrade, and other major cities Thursday and claimed to have ousted the despotic 13-year regime.

Vojislav Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer who defeated Milosevic in elections 11 days ago, declared himself the new president.

“Good evening, liberated Serbia,” the 56-year-old Kostunica proclaimed Thursday night to a cheering crowd of about a quarter million in front of the federal parliament building, which protesters had seized earlier in the day. “I am now president. Milosevic has fled his home. Serbia has risen.” At about 9 p.m. Thursday, the official Tanjug news agency began referring to him as “Elected President Kostunica.”

Kostunica asked his audience to remain on the streets until dawn, in case of a counterattack by the military. He also called for a rally in the capital Friday.

But when supporters chanted for Milosevic’s arrest. Kostunica said: “He doesn’t need to be arrested. He arrested himself a long time ago.”

Milosevic gave no sign he had stepped down, but it was unclear, after a day of humiliating setbacks for his police and military, if he was capable of mounting a counterattack. Protected by tanks and troops, he spent most of Thursday in seclusion, but an independent Serbian news agency Thursday night reported that several Russian-built Antonov AN-12 aircraft departed a military airfield north of Belgrade and were heading south to an unknown destination.

Shortly after midnight, however, opposition leader Zoran Djindjic said Milosevic was in an eastern Serbian town, Bor, “surrounded by his closest associates ... and I suppose that he may be preparing a coup.”

In Washington, President Clinton promised to lift economic sanctions as soon as the regime change was confirmed. “The people of Serbia have spoken with their ballot, they have spoken on the street,” Clinton said. “I hope the hour is near when their voices will be heard and we can welcome them to democracy, to Europe and to the world.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged Milosevic to announce his resignation “before any more lives are lost, before there is any more destruction.” And Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the day’s tumultuous events reminded her of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Kostunica had predicted Thursday would be the day he would remove Milosevic, but the speed his prediction came about astonished his backers and most outside observers. It appeared that the country had simply decided it would not tolerate another day of Milosevic. Adding steam to the public fury was a bizarre ruling of Milosevic’s hand-picked Constitutional Court that annulled the results of the election, due apparently to demonstrated fraud by the Milosevic government, but ruled that he could stay in office and delay a re-run until the end of his constitutional term in July.

As the ruling became known, tens of thousands of Yugoslavs from the major cities descended upon Belgrade in enormous convoys of cars and buses. They brought their own bulldozers and used them to smash through police barricades on the major roads, then joined a crowd that swelled to an estimated half million.