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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Serbs Hail Return of Democratic Mayor

CACAK, Yugoslavia -- In the moments before Mayor Velimir Ilic's triumphal return Tuesday f after 43 days on the run from his own army in the forests surrounding this stronghold of democratic reform f the town's deputy mayor had described him as "an F-117 Stealth fighter. He's invisible."

But when Ilic took the stage Tuesday afternoon for the first opposition rally in Yugoslavia since the end of NATO's air war, and a crowd of thousands chanted "Vel-ja! Velja! Vel-ja!" in unison, it was clear that this 47-year-old Serb f an engineer turned mayor, then fugitive and finally hero f suddenly appeared as a front-line weapon of the opposition against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

His only crime, Ilic told the crowd when he arrived on a makeshift stage in Cacak's main square, was trying to protect the people who had elected him from being used as human shields by local military commanders during the war.

"The army parked their tanks by the houses, and we asked them only to move the tanks away. But they refused," Ilic explained. Then, at 3:10 p.m. on May 10, NATO's bombs fell f obliterating the tanks, factories and more than a dozen nearby homes, where three civilians died.

"I saw the bodies of these innocent people who had asked me for protection," said Ilic, who was so moved by the horror that he decided to tell the world.

By telephone, he told Western reporters and the U.S. government's Radio Free Europe what had happened that day. And three days later, Ilic was officially labeled a traitor, fleeing to the hills after a tip by ham radio operators as military police surrounded his home.

He spent his 43 days on the run in the forests, protected by priests and even a pro-government village.

"I am proud they proclaimed me a traitor," Ilic shouted from the stage Tuesday, a homecoming he deliberately timed for the opposition's opening show of defiance against Milosevic.

"I am not guilty of treason," said Ilic, who added that he was returning to office and was prepared to stand trial. "I have been in hell for 43 days, and my only crime was caring."

But if the mountains were hell, Ilic's task ahead will be much the same.

He returned to an industrial town where NATO left most of the industry in ruin. The 240 bombs and missiles that Deputy Mayor Dusan Drinjakovic said fell on the city during NATO's 11-week air war demolished the city's four major factories, which manufactured products ranging from vacuum cleaners, stoves and radiators to military tanks, missile parts and troop-truck components.

"More than 6,000 workers now are without their factories here," said Drinjakovic, who belongs to a different pro-democracy party than the mayor. "With four in every family, that means 24,000 without work. And there are just 80,000 people in the whole town."

In the meantime, a large army base in Cacak was left unscathed and is now fully manned. The large police force in town is loyal to Milosevic and the only law in town. And, despite their love of democracy, Drinjakovic and others here said the war has left them wondering how the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton and NATO now expect their movement to survive.

Clinton "has made our situation only harder," said the deputy, who ran the town in Ilic's absence, when asked about a proposed U.S. strategy to reinforce opposition group in towns like Cacak to drive Milosevic from power. "We had expectations that our little democracy would be protected. But now, what do you expect from these poor people here after the West has taken from them the last piece of bread?"