Serbs, opposition rally at town hall

ZRENJANIN, Apr 7, 2000 -- (Reuters) More than 1,000 people staged a protest rally in northern Serbia on Thursday after an opposition councilor was abducted for several hours and two other councilors were stripped of their mandate.

"We wanted elections, and they (the authorities) do not want them. They want the street to decide. That is what they will get," Vladan Batic, coordinator of the Alliance for Change opposition party, told the cheering crowd.

"This way we will force the regime to hold free and fair elections. In order to do this, we have to be united," he added.

Zrenjanin opposition councilors occupied the town hall overnight on Wednesday to demand punishment for the abductors of a colleague and the reinstatement of two other opposition councilors who were stripped of their mandate.

They left the hall before the rally started.

"Twenty-five councilors spent the night on the assembly hall benches," Bojan Kostres, a deputy of the opposition League of Social Democrats, told Reuters by telephone from the hall.

"We demand that the abductors of our colleague are found and punished and the two mandates returned," Kostres said.

Before Wednesday's council session, opposition councilor Jan Svetlik was abducted from his home, driven around for hours and later returned. Two others were stripped of their mandate, their colleagues said.

Svetlik's absence gave Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists a slim majority, enabling them to vote on stripping the mandates of the two opposition members and later to vote on the budget.

"Authorities who are bothered by a simple peasant like myself cannot survive," Svetlik, 66, told the rally.

The two councilors whose mandates were taken away had been elected as members of Serbia's ruling Socialist party but later defected to the opposition.

Zrenjanin, the second largest city in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina, has a Socialist mayor although the opposition and Serbia's leftist coalition have 33 seats each in the council.

Serbian opposition leaders and Western officials have accused Milosevic of a renewed drive to suppress dissenting views - targeting independent media in particular - before important municipal elections across the republic.

Original article