Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Opposition Leaders Beaten By Riot Police, Media Targeted

Police violence against anti-regime protestors in Belgrade escalated further on Thursday night, but opposition leaders are urging their followers to stand firm in the face of the batons.
By Milenko Vasovic

Police brutally intervened to disperse demonstrators in Belgrade for a second time Thursday, the 10th day of a rolling programme of nationwide anti-regime street protests.


Without warning baton wielding police charged protestors on the Branko bridge across the Sava River as they tried to march through to the Novi Belgrade industrial/residential area of the city.


Among the first to be beaten was opposition Alliance for Changes (SZP) leader Zoran Djindjic, Social Democracy party leader Vuk Obradovic and leading SZP member Milan St. Protic.


The police also beat well known economics professor Ljubomir Madzar of Belgrade University, a member of the G-17 'experts group', which has offered to serve as an interim government before elections, if regime leader Slobodan Milosevic steps down. According to reports police beat Madzar with batons and kicked him, telling him to "get lost, you old dog".


"I never saw in my life so ugly fights," one eyewitness told Balkans Crisis Report, even though he said he had seen years of protests in the city. "The police was never so cruel. They beat as they were crazy and did not discriminate between woman or man, young or old. It was like they were drugged."


Journalists were also attacked by police, including a cameraman from the Studio B station, Reuters reporter Julijana Mojsilovic and Slavisa Lekic, editor of the Bosnian magazine Reporter in Banja Luka.


Studio B, which had reporters giving live commentary on the protest from the streets, said that police were attacking people in restaurants even before the protests had got under way - and then threw stones at people watching the action from their apartment windows.


According to organisers, in the two days since the police turned violent on Wednesday, some 50 protestors had been injured. The city police say 21 people have been arrested.


The eyewitness said police beat anyone carrying the protestors' trademark whistle or who showed affiliation to any of the opposition parties. "Police were waiting for people in front of the main post office - they set ambushes for people in different streets, in different parts of the town, like they were hunting animals.


"I don't understand who is hiding behind the uniforms and masks," he added. "I don't dare to think what happened to those who fell or couldn't run away. But the more they beat people, the more people come onto the streets."


Most of the 50,000 people on the Thursday night march were forced away by the police attacks, but later reconvened at Republic Square in central Belgrade to hear speeches from the SZP leadership.


Despite the likelihood of further violence, Djindjic urged the protestors not to pull back from the police in future but to stand their ground instead. "We must make this sacrifice so out country may live," said Djindjic. "We as a generation must do it now. We shouldn't allow our children to be beaten in the future. It's better if we take the blows on our own backs now. Somebody must."


State run RTS TV accused the leaders of the SZP of "hiring gangs of hooligans, drug addicts and criminals to attack the police in a bid to provoke a civil war." Serbian vice president Vojislav Seselj said that it was the police that had come under attack, and that they should respond with even more violence.


In a related development, state finance police ordered the closure of the ABC printing house, which publishes the independent daily Glas javnosti. Print house director Slavoljub Kacarevic, said the works and the paper had been closed simply because it had been printing SZP bulletins.


Earlier on Thursday, representatives of 21 opposition met for a four-hour round table session and agreed that new elections were the quickest and most rational solution to the current crisis. But they said that it was essential to agree pre-conditions before the vote to ensure that it was carried out fairly.


A group of experts has been asked to table a draft for the parties to review at their next meeting.


Milenko Vasovic is a regular IWPR contributor from Belgrade.


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