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Serbia Army Units May Not Back Regime

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Embattled Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic came under new pressure Monday with the purported rebellion of an elite army unit, while leaders of anti-government street demonstrations planned their largest rally yet for New Year’s Eve.

On the 43rd consecutive day of protest against alleged election fraud, thousands of students and other demonstrators paraded over ice-coated streets through police gantlets and heard from a young activist released from jail after 25 days.

“They tortured me, and I am here to prove we are not afraid,” declared Dejan Bulatovic, arrested and beaten after he marched with an effigy of Milosevic in prison garb.

Milosevic, whose decision to annul opposition victories in municipal elections last month triggered the greatest wave of unrest in his nine-year rule, meanwhile was hearing from critics in his own government--and possibly in his own security forces.

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Nine detachments of the Yugoslav army from Serbia’s second-largest city and five other towns lent support to the opposition and said they would disobey any orders to use force against the protesters, according to a mysterious, two-page letter addressed to Milosevic that surfaced over the weekend.

“We will not allow Serbia to be ruined, and we will not be against our people,” said the unsigned letter. “Our tanks and our guns will only be used against enemies. . . . If it is necessary, we will stand in front of the Serbian people for the final victory of truth.”

The disaffected officers’ petition was first presented to army Chief of Staff Gen. Momcilo Perisic in a weekend meeting in the city of Nis, the independent Belgrade news agency VIP reported Monday. Except for the VIP report, the authenticity of the letter could not be verified, and diplomats were regarding it with caution. The government seemed to be taking it seriously and moved quickly to dispel the notion of dissent.

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In a meeting shown prominently on state television Monday night, a dozen senior army officers paid a visit to Zoran Lilic, president of the rump Yugoslavia--which is made up of Serbia and tiny Montenegro. The officers voiced their support for the state.

Perisic was shown at the meeting and was quoted saying that the army would defend the “stability and integrity” of Yugoslavia. “Internal and external stability of the country are necessary,” Perisic said.

In response to the letter late Monday, the army’s general headquarters issued a denial of internal splits within the military. “With international influences, some are trying to involve the army in activities that are out of the army’s role and duties,” the statement said.

If real, the letter would confirm persistent rumors of dissatisfaction and confusion within the Serbian security forces and would offer another sign that the pillars of power sustaining Milosevic are beginning to crack. The letter seemed to be warning Milosevic against declaring a state of emergency, an extreme measure he is thought to be considering.

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The army units purported to have joined in the letter included Yugoslavia’s 63rd Paratrooper Brigade, an elite group that saw battle against Croatia in 1991.

Support from the army would represent a significant boost for the opposition. Yet the army--with many of its generals purged by Milosevic--has been eclipsed in recent years by the police, which Milosevic favors, pays well and has used as a paramilitary state security apparatus deployed against the demonstrators.


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