Serb New Year party ends on somber noter

BELGRADE, Jan 14, 2000 -- (Reuters) An anti-government celebration of the Orthodox New Year ended on a somber note in Belgrade on Friday when organizers showed a video listing those killed in NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia last year.

"Serbia, is there any reason to celebrate?" a student opposition activist asked the 15,000-strong crowd.

Shortly after the Orthodox New Year began on the stroke of midnight, Belgrade's main central square was plunged into darkness when cloths were draped over street lights and a video began showing death notices.

"Let us remember them now. Let us have a minute of silence. Then go home. By leaving this place we will send a message to Serbia: let there be no more victims, let this be the last time we have a minute of silence," said Ljuba Tadic, an activist of the student Otpor (Resistance) organization.

Tadic read the names of some of those who died in the NATO air strikes triggered by Yugoslavia's repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province.

Tadic also referred to victims of wars Serbs fought in vain over the last decade during President Slobodan Milosevic's rule to try to prevent the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia from winning independence.

"I know that you feel there is no reason to celebrate because we've been feeling death around us all these years," he said.

As the crowd began to disperse, some participants unhappy with the unexpectedly abrupt end to celebrations began to throw bottles at the stage. No one was hurt.

"It should have been more festive," a woman in her mid-40s said. Her friend added: "This makes no sense at all."

In January 1997, students organized the largest ever Orthodox New Year celebration, with up to 400,000 people flooding the center of Belgrade during an 88-day street protest against election fraud.

City hall, run by the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), helped students to organize Thursday's event.

On Monday, Serbia's fragmented opposition united to sign a demand for early general elections. Serbia's ruling coalition rejected the call earlier on Thursday and said elections would not be brought forward.

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