Milosevic Uses Police To Take Back Town

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Enlisting police to take back what they lost at the polls, President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists assumed control of a town south of Belgrade on Tuesday. Unfazed, the opposition held its own city hall meeting in the streets.

Like 13 other cities, Smederevska Palanka, 80 kilometers south of Belgrade, was listed by a team of international monitors as won by the opposition in Nov. 17 municipal elections.

But Milosevic has ignored both international pressure and 10 weeks of daily protest drawing tens of thousands in Belgrade and other towns. While grudgingly recognizing six opposition victories, his Socialists -- the renamed communists -- claim Belgrade and seven other cities won by the opposition.

In Smederevska Palanka, the Socialists and the opposition held separate constitutional sessions for the local town hall. Opposition deputies were prevented from entering the building by riot police.

"It is not clear what the police are defending," Smederevska Palanka's would-be mayor Dusan Naric said.

"Maybe this is even better, as we constituted our rule together with the people," he said, as opposition deputies addressed the crowd with a megaphone and read from documents placed on a car roof.

On Monday, Milosevic's neo-Communists also formally took over Jagodina, 100 kilometers south of Belgrade, another town won by the opposition.

Also Monday, a Belgrade district court for the second time overturned an electoral commission ruling that the opposition won the capital. Serbian courts are believed to be controlled by Milosevic.

The head of the Belgrade electoral commission, Radomir Lazarevic, denounced the court decision as an "illegal breach of people's electoral will."

The coalition Zajedno, or Together, said it will appeal the latest court ruling.

More protests were scheduled Tuesday afternoon.

Even Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia that supported Milosevic when all other major powers were against him over the past four years, urged him to concede defeat in all 14 cities.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe "has a constructive character, and its realization could be a way out of the current situation."

Ivanov was to meet with Milosevic later Tuesday. Opposition leaders who met the Russian late Monday told him the protests will end only when the president concedes the loss.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns called the ruling on Belgrade "a step in the wrong direction." Burns said the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade has lodged a protest with the Serbian government against the court's decision and the use of force against demonstrators over the weekend.

Police have intervened in the protests in the past four days, clubbing demonstrators and injuring at least 26 protesters.

In solemn silence that contrasted with months of raucous political protests, more than 100,000 people marched Monday in a religious procession with strong anti-government overtones.

Riot police quietly withdrew to allow the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, to lead the early morning procession through Belgrade's frost-coated streets.

Pavle has supported demonstrations against Milosevic and wanted to see if his procession could pass through a police cordon that has blocked students from marching in the center of the capital for a week.