Serbian opposition to seek help from Moscow

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - Stepping up the most intensive crackdown in years, Yugoslav police arrested more government critics Saturday while the opposition sought Russian help in encouraging President Slobodan Milosevic to ease the repression.

Opposition groups planned rallies Saturday night in Belgrade and several other cities. But only about 1,000 people turned out in the capital in heavy rain to demand the government rescind its move to close down media not controlled by Milosevic's administration.

Meanwhile, the crackdown, which began Wednesday, continued unabated.

The independent Beta news agency reported that at least 24 opposition activists were arrested Saturday in six towns throughout the country. They included 14 members of the student group Otpor, or Resistance, who were reportedly detained in the town of Priboj while putting up anti-government posters. More than 150 people have been injured in clashes with police since the crackdown started.

The government move followed the May 13 assassination of a regional official in Novi Sad, which the government blamed on the opposition. Opposition leaders have denied the charge and claimed Milosevic's government was simply looking for an excuse to muzzle the president's critics before local elections expected this year.

On Friday, Milosevic pledged to defend Yugoslavia against ''enemies'' allegedly trying to break up the country.

The United States and major Western European governments have condemned the crackdown. But they have little leverage since last year's NATO bombing campaign, launched to force Milosevic to halt his repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

As a result of the Kosovo crackdown, Milosevic and several key figures have been indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The indictment left Milosevic no option but to resist any moves to end his rule.

Since the West can do little, opposition leaders are turning to Russia, hoping that a fellow Slavic nation will have more success reigning in Milosevic. Opposition sources said their two principal leaders, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, were expected to travel to Moscow next week to meet with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and others.

In an interview on the Internet, Djindjic said the opposition wants assurances that Moscow does not support or in any way justify Milosevic's crackdown. Draskovic expressed hope that Russia would ''send a strong message to Milosevic to stop the terror against media and start a dialogue with the opposition'' about free and fair elections in Serbia.

In Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright openly challenged officials of Milosevic's regime to break with him and join the pro-democracy forces.

''We agreed that officials in Serbia face a choice,'' she said. ''They can stand for the freedom and the rights of all Serbs, or they can prolong Milosevic's rule by participating in the oppression.''


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