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Massive Protests Against Milosevic Mount in Belgrade as Kostunica is Expected to Address Crowd

Aired October 5, 2000 - 11:00 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Protests on the streets of Belgrade -- again, the protests continue for several hours now as they have stormed the parliament building in downtown Belgrade. Videotape that continues to come in to us here at CNN and in Belgrade.

That's where we find CNN's Alessio Vinci, now live with us and, Alessio, we have been tracking this, now, for several hours.

Does it appear that, any time soon, the protesters have dissipated with their chants and their marches in the streets there?

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN BELGRADE BUREAU CHIEF: As a matter of fact, Bill, what is happening at this time is that the protesters are reconvening in front of the federal parliament because the opposition leaders have called protesters who had dispersed because of the tear gas to reconvene in front of the parliament because they are saying that the opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica will address the crowd.

So, certainly, the situation now in front of the parliament is somewhat calmer than 20 minutes ago, when a group of demonstrators tried to storm the federal parliament. They broke through police lines and they tried to enter the federal building.

We understand from opposition sources that some opposition sympathizers have managed to enter the building. However, inside that building there are hundreds of riot policemen in full riot gear; and it is possible at this time that, even if some opposition supporters are inside the building, it does not mean that the opposition has occupied that building because it is possible that those protesters who are inside the building were either detained by the police or, perhaps, there is some kind of negotiations that we don't know of between the two sides.

Opposition leaders, who have tried all along to keep these demonstrations to a peaceful resolution. As people were trying to storm the building, we could hear, through the loud speakers that were set in place for opposition leaders to address the crowd, we could hear them calling for peace, calling for calm.

HEMMER: Alessio, you reported earlier that the opposition leaders have not encouraged this type of activity.

However, it is thought, inside of Belgrade, that this is exactly what they wanted -- these type of pictures to come out of Yugoslavia and to be broadcast around the world.

VINCI: Well, you know, Bill, these pictures could, frankly speaking, could be used by both sides. The opposition, of course, is trying to show that this country is not a free country, that the people here are storming a building, and that they need to do that in order to have an election they think that they have already won.

On the other side, those pictures could be used by the authorities here to install some kind of a state of emergency; to try to declare a state of emergency, which would mean that, then, those opposition demonstrations which, so far, have taken place will be no longer authorized. All those demonstrations, so far, have been authorized by the police. There have been no attempts by the police to break down the demonstrations, at least in the last couple of weeks.

We have seen hundreds of thousands of people in Belgrade here last week. We've seen several thousands of them throughout the country, and police never tried to break those demonstrations.

What we are seeing in front of the parliament today is a police force who is simply trying to contain demonstrators; not attacking them, not trying to break up demonstrations, but simply preventing them from entering the building.

So, certainly, these are pictures that will be used from both sides. The opposition will claim that this is the only way they will be able to bring down President Milosevic, and President Milosevic claiming that he will have to react in some way to protect, what he says, is the legitimate government in this country at this point.

HEMMER: Alessio, you mention the opposition leader about to speak there, forthcoming in Belgrade.

Has there been any reaction from Slobodan Milosevic through all this today?

VINCI: Not today, Bill. We have not heard from President Milosevic today. The only reaction I heard so far was from state television, broadcast television, which is controlled, of course, by President Milosevic's allies.

State television broadcasting a statement saying that the Democratic opposition of Serbia is trying to create mayhem, to create chaos in downtown Belgrade in front of the federal parliament; trying to destabilize the situation here. State television has launched a fierce campaign against the opposition here throughout this political election, and also in recent months.

So, certainly, we have not heard from President Milosevic, but we know what his point of view is at this point.

HEMMER: In some of the pictures we're seeing, Alessio, just to bring our viewers up to date, some of that has been on videotape that unfolded over the past two hours. There's a live picture, now, also available just outside the downtown bureau in Belgrade where it appears that a number of these protesters are headed peacefully, walking away in the opposite direction.

Can you see those people from your perspective?

VINCI: Yes, Bill; what, basically, is happening now, is that you have a tense situation in front of parliament, but you also have several thousand demonstrators who walked away from the parliament where tear gas was used; and they are now convened here in front of the bureau.

What I can see now, here, is most of these people trying to walk back towards the square because the opposition leaders announced that Kostunica, the opposition leader, is about to address the crowd; and, therefore, they're trying to reconvene inside the federal parliament -- outside the federal parliament.

HEMMER: Couple more points to be made, Alessio: I don't know how far you are away from that federal building, the parliament building itself; but based on the videotape we can see, there's quite a bit of destruction that's been done to that building.

Have you or anyone with the CNN crews been able to go over there just yet?

VINCI: Yes; what we've been able to establish so far is that, at least from one window, we saw a little bit of fire. Perhaps a curtain was on fire. And we saw a thick, black cloud of smoke coming from behind the building.

Our crew there, on the ground, told me that, basically, either a car or some kind of an object was on fire. It was not coming from within the building.

We are also hearing, Bill, some explosions from -- coming directly from the department. That might be, perhaps, more tear gas or, perhaps, the opposition supporters using fire crackers. It's quite -- the situation is still very much tense here. And it certainly does appear that the police have not managed to control the situation.

HEMMER: Alessio, the crowd noise we're hearing right now. What is that, please?

VINCI: This picture -- the crowd is outside our bureau. We are about 500 yards away from the federal parliament, and these are people who have left the square in front of the federal parliament.

So this is the situation about 500 yards away. The crowd here is very peaceful. They are animated, they are angry, but they are not trying to confront any kind of security forces -- also because there are no police here whatsoever. They are only inside the parliament.

HEMMER: And, Alessio, as we continue our conversation here, I want to let our viewers know the videotape we're seeing now here in the U.S. is brand-new videotape that has come in and, apparently, the destruction of that building continues. Different fires in different areas and the smoke billowing out from the top. Alessio, we've spoken with a couple experts on the Balkans throughout the day here and a couple of them, chiefly in London and also in Washington, believe this is history in the making. They believe that this is truly the end of Slobodan Milosevic.

Is there a feeling similar to that where you are among the protesters today?

VINCI: I would say it is way too early to say, Bill, if this is the end of President Milosevic.

We heard, several times in the past that President Milosevic's end was about to come, and then he always remained in power there, where he is. So, certainly, these pictures are, at least, an indication that the crowd -- at least a portion of the crowd -- supporting the opposition here.

He is no longer willing to wait -- to wait for President Milosevic to step aside voluntarily and, therefore, is trying to create a situation whereby storming, for example, the federal building or, perhaps even trying to march, later on, to the house of President Milosevic.

They are trying to shake the very power of the country, the very system of the country. They've been trying to do so for the last 10 years or so. So, certainly, these are people who no longer will want to wait. People who understood that President Milosevic will not leave voluntarily and, therefore, in their view, this is the best way to try -- at least to begin, to set in motion a process that would eventually, perhaps, bring President Milosevic down.

However, so far, it is way too early to say.

HEMMER: And you mentioned Mr. Milosevic's house.

Do we know, is that where he is right now? And if so, have there ever been protests in the past that have gone to his doorstep in Belgrade?

VINCI: Well, we don't know where President Milosevic is and we don't even know if he is here in Belgrade.

What I can tell you is that attempts to reach the area where President Milosevic lives have been, in the past, met by strong reaction from the police. So far, we have not had that kind of reaction from the police.

Only a couple of days ago, when students teased policemen, saying they were going to walk towards the area of Dedinje -- that's where President Milosevic lives -- riot police came out, there was a brief negotiation there with some opposition leaders and then protesters withdrew.

So, certainly, there was no indication that, at least for now, the crowd is ready to pursue this attack against other buildings in town. HEMMER: And, Alessio, you've referred to it a couple times -- I think it's a point that should be noted, again, as we see this videotape here -- as protesters -- this appears to be the point when they, indeed, overran the police there on the steps of the parliament building and eventually made their way inside.

We saw police, here, with batons in their hands. We've also seen police, now, fire tear gas and holding shields there. In return, the protesters have responded with rocks, et cetera. But you've made the point on several occasions that police, in large measure, have held their fire.

How important has that been in order to maintain what we've seen thus far today?

VINCI: I think Bill, it is a significant development. I have covered several demonstrations in the past here, beginning in 1996.

This is the first time I've seen such a police that is holding back. We have seen them, recently, last year, after the end of NATO's bombing campaign, police trying to break up demonstrations, beating people on the ground. We have not seen that.

The police, at this point, have simply tried to contain the crowd. They have not acted harshly against those demonstrators. They didn't chase them, they didn't beat them. They simply tried to contain the crowd from entering the federal building, the federal parliament; and, also, they're using tear gas to disperse the crowd.

It is, I must tell you, really an indication here that, perhaps on the one side the police did not receive the order to break those demonstrations, to hurt people and, on the other side, perhaps, the unwillingness from the police to carry out an order that they probably do not wish they want to do.

At this point, it is in the interests of everybody, both of President Milosevic and those protesters not to be beaten because, obviously, then that would take everything to next level and everything could go anywhere. I mean, it's really hard to say how those demonstrations will develop in the next few hours. We will have to see.

HEMMER: Indeed; Alessio, the other point to be made in all this is the elections that were held last month, but apparently not meeting the satisfaction of most people in the higher elements of the Yugoslav government.

A court now ruled that, indeed, a new election should be held. An election that has not been met favorably by the protesters, who believe the opposition, indeed, won that particular election. But, in addition to that, I think it should be pointed out that we really do not know right now the next course of action -- be it legally or through the electorate, as to who will, indeed, take power in Yugoslavia.

Is there a way to connect the dots between the different court rulings, what we have seen on the streets and the eventual future of Slobodan Milosevic as to who, indeed, will take power in Yugoslavia?

VINCI: Bill, what we are seeing today in the streets of Belgrade, is certainly a reaction from that constitutional court ruling last night which, basically, said in a few words that the presidential election that the opposition here believes it won, was null and void and they had to repeat it.

However, in this report ruling, the constitutional court did not really say, first of all, why they ruled that way and what would be the next step.

According to the federal prime minister, Mr. Milosevic would be able to remain in power until the end of term, that is in June next year. Therefore, perhaps people here, who have tried to storm the building, felt that they couldn't wait that long. There is also a sense among people here that this is, perhaps, their last chance to remove President Milosevic from power because they had 2.5 million people who voted in favor of the opposition candidate.

By his own admission, President Milosevic received 10 percent votes less than Kostunica. Therefore, they know that, at this point, they are working against a weak president and security forces who have shown willingness to stand back and not react harshly.

So, certainly, the events which unfolded in the last couple of hours are certainly a reaction to what happened here in the last few days and, especially, since last night when, basically, the constitutional court, which is filled with Milosevic's loyalists, ruled that the elections have to be repeated.

By canceling the elections, they basically canceled President Milosevic's defeat in the first round.

HEMMER: All right; Alessio Vinci, our Belgrade bureau chief, excellent work there, Alessio.

We're going to cut him loose for a just a short time, here, to gather a little bit more information.

But if you're just joining us, we'd like to let you know at this time, the videotape you're seeing: massive demonstrations, massive amounts of protesters on the streets of Belgrade storming the federal parliament building in downtown Belgrade.

Tear gas has been fired by police there. Stones have been fired by protesters. A number of protesters did enter the building and inflicted quite a bit of damage on the physical structure of the parliament.

In addition to that, we're waiting for a major speech by the opposition leader to address the thousands of people who have gathered in Belgrade. All this, a result of elections we saw last month that apparently have not been met favorably by the protester, who did, indeed, want the opposition to take over rule instead of Slobodan Milosevic. Again, some historians, some experts on the Balkans believe this could be the end of Slobodan Milosevic's grip on power in Yugoslavia; but, again, that continues to be somewhat of an open question at this time.

We will try and maintain our coverage here in Belgrade. We'll also reestablish contact with Alessio Vinci from the Yugoslav capital and we also anticipate, once again, that speech in the center of Belgrade. Once that happens, we will bring it to you live.

In the meantime, quick two-minute time out. We're back with more after this.



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