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Serb protesters festive amid signs of military backing

whistle December 29, 1996
Web posted at: 6:50 p.m. EST (2350 GMT)

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Serbian police Sunday blocked tens of thousands of people in Belgrade amid signs that the opposition movement may be gaining support from portions of the military. movie icon (884K/23 sec. Protest QuickTime movie)

During Sunday's demonstration, an actor read what he said was an open letter -- from military representatives in six towns, mostly from southern and southeastern Serbia -- to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, his army chief and others.

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The letter called on Gen. Momcilo Perisic, the Yugoslav army chief of staff, to tell Serbians where he and the armed forces stand -- "with the people, with the young generation, toward the future."

The letter also blasted Milosevic for leading the Yugoslavian army into humiliation in Bosnia and Croatia and said he was responsible for the wars there.

"Serbia should stand together with countries where it is possible to live honestly, happily and in a satisfactory way," the letter said.

The authenticity of the letter could not be confirmed, though independent media first reported its existence last week, and the army has not issued any denials. The letter energized the crowd, which began chanting, "It has started! It has started!"

Carnival atmosphere

About 70,000 protesters tried to march through Belgrade -- the 42nd straight day of rallies against Milosevic -- but a phalanx of riot police halted them.

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Police were enforcing a ban on street marches imposed by ruling Socialist party after a December 24 riot involving pro and anti-government loyalists.

Police in recent days have attempted to clamp down on protests, and on Friday they beat a cameraman employed by an independent Belgrade radio station. movie icon (1M/27 sec. Beating QuickTime movie)

The protesters took Sunday's police blockades in stride and a carnival atmosphere set in, with demonstrators linking hands in dances to Serbian folk music blasting from speakers set up on the back of a car.

Protest marches have been held in 47 towns and cities virtually every day since Milosevic overturned the results of November 17 local elections that candidates of the opposition coalition, Zajedno, or 'Together', had won.

Milosevic in a bind

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The protests are the most serious challenge to date for Milosevic. The organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe accused Milosevic's Socialist party of vote rigging, bolstering the opposition's claims.

Western governments have warned the Serbian president that he can forget about financial aid for his wrecked economy unless he concedes electoral defeats and starts broad democratic reform.

But such concessions might jeopardize the ruling Socialist party's unbroken rule of 50 years, and hard-liners who live privileged lives from their control over state industries are pressuring Milosevic to take a firm stand.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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