Belgrade Crackdown Spurs More Protests

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Tens of thousands of President Slobodan Milosevic's opponents demonstrated again Monday for democracy, defying hundreds of riot police and remaining unbowed by the state's biggest show of muscle in 2 1/2 months of protests.


A crowd estimated by reporters at 60,000 jammed a central square for a rally by the opposition coalition Zajedno, or Together, then tried to move through central Belgrade. Hundreds of riot police blocked their path in a nervous standoff similar to one that ended in violence late Sunday.


Demonstrators, anxious to keep their 10-week uprising largely peaceful, dispersed fairly rapidly. But a die-hard crowd of about 200 young protesters pelted police with rocks, prompting the police to bring in reinforcements and chase demonstrators through a nearby pedestrian area. Independent Radio Index reported that at least one woman was beaten.


Earlier Monday, 10,000 students rallied at different colleges and were allowed to march unhindered through the city and across the bridge that was the scene of Sunday's confrontation.


Some 80 people were injured when riot police used clubs, tear gas and water cannons to smash through a crowd of thousands trying to cross the bridge into downtown Belgrade. Police then chased protesters all over the city center, beating and arresting them.


The violence enraged Belgraders. The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, appealed to police "to protect law and order, and not those in power, who are sinking deeper and deeper, not knowing what they are doing.''


The National Theater went on strike and local film distributors pulled films from a popular annual festival.


"We can't remain silent while Serbia is burning,'' said Ljubisa Samardzic, a popular actor and producer. Movie theaters may also stop working, he said.


Opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, retracting an impassioned overnight plea to supporters to abandon peaceful resistance, urged the army to abandon neutrality and side with the protesters, and he implored citizens to stop paying taxes.


"Complete civil disobedience is the only way,'' he told reporters.


Fellow opposition leader Zoran Djindjic urged the West to raise pressure on Milosevic to recognize the opposition's local election victories of November. Annulment of those wins sparked the daily anti-government protests of the past 75 days.


Djindjic said Milosevic "lost his nerve completely.'' "Actions like these cannot stop the demonstrations but can only raise the restlessness and anger of the people.


"We must continue. The people will come out today, tomorrow and in the future. Milosevic has won nothing and lost a great deal, much more than he will be able to repair,'' Djindjic said.


Germany, France and Britain deplored the violence. The top international mediator in Bosnia directly accused Milosevic of ordering it.


One of Zajedno's three leaders, Vesna Pesic was beaten on her feet, hands and ribs by police Sunday night. She told independent Radio Index she was saved from worse only by protesters who protected her against the "very frightening'' police.


Eyewitnesses told independent radio stations that scores of protesters had been arrested. There was no word on arrests from authorities Monday morning.


The clash came after a tense four-hour standoff between tens of thousands of protesters and hundreds of riot police facing each other at both sides of a Belgrade bridge.


The standoff began when police prevented Draskovic from leading thousands of his supporters to the daily pro-democracy rally in downtown Belgrade.


Other opposition leaders in different districts scrapped plans to rally downtown and instead marched toward the Brankov Most, or Branko's Bridge, that connects Belgrade to its New Belgrade district across the Sava River.


A standoff developed, with riot police facing tens of thousands of protesters on both sides of the span in sub-freezing temperatures.


The police officer in charge told Draskovic he had orders to use violence if necessary to prevent the protesters from crossing. Opposition leaders prepared for a long standoff, urging supporters to remain calm and not to break through the police cordon by force.


But shortly before midnight, hundreds of riot police used their shields to begin pushing the protesters away. Backed by water cannon, police then began clubbing the retreating protesters.