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Belgrade Protesters Encircled By Police 32 Arrests Reported In Possible Prelude To Tougher Action

Anti-riot vehicles and busloads of police reportedly took up positions in and around Belgrade on Monday as 80,000 demonstrators staged new street protests, pelting the president’s office with eggs, firecrackers and snowballs.

Police continued to give the main demonstrations a wide berth. But in a possible prelude to tougher action, police reported the arrests of 32 people over the past several days for “brutal attacks on people’s property.” Serbia’s government pledged to enact unspecified legal measures to prevent further “economic hardship” caused by the demonstrators.

It has been two weeks since protesters, in an unprecedented display, began marching to denounce the annulment of opposition victories in local elections and to demand the resignation of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Though the government has threatened a crackdown, there was no visible police presence around the protests Monday. Traffic police refused to reroute traffic around the demonstrators as they have in the past, causing havoc on the streets.

Witnesses said busloads of police - apparently arriving from other parts of Serbia - were being deployed in Belgrade suburbs. They said that policemen with portable radios took up positions on house roofs or in entrances. Armored anti-riot vehicles were seen in a Belgrade park.

The crowd of protesters grew throughout the day despite heavy snow.

Chanting “Let’s go, all-out attack! Red bandits and thieves!” the protesters aimed their missiles at Milosevic’s office and state-run Borba newspaper, a Milosevic mouthpiece.

Opposition leader Vuk Draskovic termed the turnout an “historic victory” over Milosevic and loyalists who warned of a crackdown.

“If Belgrade shows that it is not afraid, the victory will be ours,” Draskovic told the independent Index radio station. He pledged to “beat violence with non-violence.”

State-run Serbian television blasted the opposition for “destructive” demonstrations.

In reality, the protests have been free of major acts of vandalism.

They already have been the largest and most sustained ever against the Serbian leader, though Monday’s demonstration was shorter than usual because of the weather.

“We want to topple his Communist dictatorship,” Draskovic told the rally.