Protesters in Serbia jockey for a postwar foothold

Mothers of soldiers demonstrate in southern Serbia. Hundreds have

On the surface, Slobodan Milosevic's regime may appear to be coming unwound.

Thousands of antiwar protesters have taken to the streets in southern Serbia. As many as 2,000 soldiers have abandoned their posts in Kosovo. And hard-liners have vandalized the headquarters of the opposition Democratic Party in downtown Belgrade.

But analysts here say that, if anything, all the commotion in recent days is a jockeying for position in a postwar order that is appearing more imminent.

"So far, Belgrade [residents have] not really been touched by the war," says a local independent journalist. "But when the bombing stops and there is a peace agreement, the real action will begin."

On Wednesday, Mr. Milosevic agreed to the peace principles put forth by the Group of Eight (G-8) countries - the United States, Russia, and six leading industrial powers.

The proposal would allow United Nations-led troops into an autonomous Kosovo to ensure the safe return of ethnic Albanian refugees. But details, such as the national composition of the forces, are likely to be the subject of prolonged third-party negotiations.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in Belgrade that the end is near. "I'm very optimistic about the ending of the war," says Vuk Draskovic, the leader of a strong party who was recently fired from his post as federal vice premier.

But, he adds, "[After the war] we will face very strong political clashes in Serbia between two political options [on either side of Milosevic]. The first one would be the option led by the radicals and supported by some ethnic extremists from Milosevic's party. The second political option would be led by my party."

The sense that peace is around the corner also extends to the Yugoslav Army, which claims to have completed its major actions against the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army.

While NATO has intensified attacks in recent weeks, there are indications that Yugoslav soldiers are questioning why they remain in Kosovo.

At a protest this week in the southern city of Krusevac, where as many as 1,000 mothers of soldiers gathered to protest the war, one woman carried a placard saying she wanted her "sons, not coffins."

Danica Milic, an official from an opposition political party in the southern city of Aleksandrovac, says 2,000 soldiers left Kosovo when they heard that Aleksandrovac security forces had mistreated their mothers - who were protesting against the war. More soldiers were reportedly arriving in Aleksandrovac Thursday.

"The mayor's bodyguards slapped some of the mothers," Ms. Milic says. "When the soldiers heard about this they came back." According to Milic, the soldiers came around 10 Wednesday morning by the truckload - and then went to the streets in a show of strength.

"They were in the city firing their guns in the air until the afternoon," she says. "Then, they made a parade through all the villages near Aleksandrovac. After that they returned their equipment and weapons and went home."

Milic's account is similar to an account by NATO sources, who say that 1,000 conscripts deserted Kosovo because of rough police behavior at the demonstrations. NATO says some of the soldiers actually shot their way through a police checkpoint on the homebound route between Pristina and Nis.

There was also a similar protest in Pancevo, just outside Belgrade, according to VIP, an independent newsletter here.

The Yugoslav Army has acknowledged the protests and accused the organizers of "undermining the defense of the country, treason, and direct collaboration with the enemy."

According to sources, Yugoslav officials are debating whether to prosecute the AWOL soldiers or to make it look as if they are part of an announced partial troop withdrawal from Kosovo. Despite the protests, however, analysts in Belgrade say such events are unlikely to loosen Milosevic's grip on power.

And a spokeswoman in Belgrade for the Democratic Party of Serbia, which helped almost topple Milosevic two years ago, says they would not support the demonstrations because they "can only bring trouble to the whole country."

"We will not ask party members to come to the streets," says Vice President Ljiljana Lucic. "It's irresponsible. There have been enough victims here already - and we want to avoid making more at all costs."

The Democratic Party's headquarters in Belgrade was vandalized this week by a group of thugs who threw rocks and bottles of paint at the building. No one was injured.

"These protests [in southern Serbia] will have no influence," says an independent analyst here. "These are three tiny towns. The only thing they will get from protesting is a greater police presence."

The demonstrations do, however, indicate a growing dissatisfaction with the ongoing conflict with NATO, which is in its eighth week. NATO apparently misfired and struck a hospital yesterday in Belgrade, whose downtown has been spared attacks since the errant Chinese Embassy bombing May 7.

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