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Serbia: Police Block Demonstrators; 80 Injured Overnight

Belgrade, 3 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Serbian riot police today again blocked tens of thousands of opposition protesters in Belgrade. Police had allowed more than 20,000 student protesters to march over a Belgrade bridge hours earlier after having stopped and attacked opposition party activists in the same spot late last night.

Opposition demonstrators protesting the government's refusal to fully reinstate opposition wins in local elections regrouped this afternoon and rallied without police interfering in Republic Square.

But a Reuters news team said the marchers were met by a line of about 500 police wearing helmets and body armor and holding batons when they tried to march down a main boulevard. The team said the police commander told co-opposition leader Zoran Djindjic that he would not let them pass but said his forces would not use violence if they were not provoked. Reuters said the standoff is continuing.

Opposition leader Vuk Draskovic has called on the Yugoslav army to side with protesters in their struggle against President Slobodan Milosevic. Besides the plea to the army, Draskovic called for citizens to stop paying taxes.

Draskovic said today that the army "cannot simply sit around and calmly watch the crime which is being committed on the streets of Belgrade."

His comments come after clashes last night in the capital Belgrade between riot police and demonstrators left some 80 people injured. Riot police used batons, tear gas, protective shields and water cannons to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators who had gathered for their daily protest against the government's annullment of opposition election victories. Among those injured was the leader of the Civic Alliance in the Zajedno opposition bloc, Vesna Pesic.

Earlier today, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church again issued an appeal for calm and against violence. Patriarch Pavle said last night's bloodshed "forbode the worst."

The renewed violence by Serbian police prompted fresh condemnations from the international community.

The senior international envoy to the Balkans, High Representative Carl Bildt, today called on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to avoid any temptation to solve the ongoing crisis by violence. Bildt's spokesman, Colum Murphy in Sarajevo, told reporters that Bildt calls on Milosevic "to show restraint and engage immediately in a peaceful dialogue that will fully honor election results."

Bildt's statement added that any attempt to resolve the crisis differently, would meet with "broad, clear and strong condemnation from the international community."

Earlier, French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette invited the three leaders of Serbia's opposition coalition -- Zoran Djindjic, Vuk Draskovic and Vesna Pesic -- to visit Paris as soon as possible. De Charette said the invitation served as recognition by the French government of the leaders of the opposition coalition, which he said had proved its political maturity through the past weeks. De Charette also said France condemmed "with the utmost firmness" yesterday's action by Serbian riot police.

German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said Milosevic's intolerance of opposition was jeopardizing any chance for closer Yugoslav links to the European Union (EU).