Rulings Buoy Serbian Protesters

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Serbian students, riding the crest of a wave of anti-government protests, launched a fifth week of street marches on Monday as a court dealt a new blow to socialist attempts to keep control of disputed councils.

The municipal court in Smederevska Palanka ordered the local electoral commission to give the municipal council to the opposition Zajedno, or Together, coalition.

The ruling was a second breakthrough for Zajedno since a similar order was made in the southern industrial town of Nis on Sunday, but opposition parties were still cautious.

Zajedno spokesman Slobodan Vuksanovic said: "This is very good news, but it goes only half way. We still don't know whether the commissions will accept the rulings."

The demonstrations have shaken President Slobodan Milosevic and given the United States a fresh opportunity to press him for democratic reform in Serbia in return for renewed access to international financial institutions.

Nis and Smerderevska Palanka in southeastern Serbia were among towns where commissions disqualified Zajedno for "irregularities" in the local elections on Nov. 17 and awarded control to the ruling socialists.

Vuksanovic said the news would maintain the momentum of the daily marches which swelled to a peak of 250,000 in Belgrade on Sunday.

Student leader Bojan Bogdanovic said that the authorities have helped keep the protests alive.

"When the atmosphere is dropping at demonstrations, the authorities always do something to provoke people to come out," he said.

"The first time it was shutting down [independent radio station] B92. Over the weekend it was Milosevic's letter [published on Friday defending his government's actions] that kept people angry."

Zajedno claimed victory in 14 of Serbia's 18 largest towns in polling on Nov. 17 but lost most in a repeat of the elections ordered by the authorities following alleged "irregularities."

Vuksanovic said they would maintain the protests until they were awarded control of the industrial centers of Kraljevo and Jagodina as well as Belgrade.

Police have so far kept a low profile during the rallies, held in a carnival atmosphere with music, street performers and fireworks, but memories of 1991, when Milosevic crushed the last big street challenge to his rule with tanks, have never been far away.

Zajedno said international backing was vital for their campaign, arguing their supporters are encouraged by the Western criticism of Milosevic, and that the Serbian president is sensitive to international opinion.