The Associated Press
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - Escalating the Yugoslav crisis, President Slobodan Milosevic's government yesterday ordered the arrest of leaders of one of the strikes launched to drive him from power.
The announcement by the Belgrade prosecutor followed a government statement warning of ``special measures'' against those responsible for the wave of strikes and blockades called to force Milosevic to accept defeat in Sept. 24 elections.
The arrest order raised fears that Milosevic may resort to the army and police to hold on to power, despite calls at home and abroad for him to step down in favor of challenger Vojislav Kostunica.
The opposition showed no signs of backing down and has called on Yugoslavs to come to Belgrade on Thursday for a final push to drive Milosevic from power.
Yesterday, strikes spread to a key copper mine, and 50,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Yugoslavia's two largest cities - 20,000 in Belgrade and 30,000 in Novi Sad, while barricades were up around the central town of Cacak.
In the capital, an estimated 20,000 people chanting "the police are with us" marched toward Milosevic's residence. Hundreds of riot police turned them away without incident.
Milosevic acknowledges Kostunica won more votes in the five-candidate contest but insists he fell short of the required majority and called a runoff for Sunday. Milosevic's opponents claim Kostunica won the election outright and refuse to participate in the runoff, claiming the Yugoslav president would only cheat again.
In a statement late yesterday, the Belgrade prosecutor's office ordered the arrest of 13 alleged organizers of the strike at the Kolubara mine, which provides coal to a major electric power station.
The 13 include Nebojsa Covic, a former pro-Milosevic mayor of Belgrade who joined the opposition after disputed 1996 local elections.
In the televised statement, the government warned that it would not tolerate "violent behavior," which disrupts vital institutions and threatens the lives of citizens.
"Special measures will be taken against the organizers of these criminal activities," the government said, clearly threatening opposition leaders with arrest. "These measures also apply to media that are financed from abroad and are breeding lies, untruths and inciting bloodshed."
Despite the warning, the opposition remained defiant.
"The government is branding us saboteurs and enemies, so why don't they put us on trial?" Kostunica told 40,000 cheering supporters yesterday in Kragujevac. "Let them dare. Milosevic is the biggest creator of chaos in Serbia," he said referring to Yugoslavia's main republic.
Late Monday, Milosevic dispatched the army's chief of staff, Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, to the Kolubara mine to demand the strikers return to work. It marked the first time Milosevic has used the military in any role during the current crisis.
But the miners told him early yesterday they would remain on strike until Milosevic accepts defeat. The government struck back by introducing four-hour power cuts to opposition-controlled cities, blaming the strikers for a shortage of coal.
There were other signs the government was preparing to get tough.
Police in the southern town of Vranje dispersed about 2,000 protesters, and opposition officials said dozens were arrested yesterday. They were promptly sentenced to between 10 and 30 days in jail for taking part in the work stoppages and road blocks, the opposition coalition reported.
However, the wave of public outrage over the apparent election fraud showed no sign of abating.
Workers at a copper mine in the southern town of Majdanpek walked off after parking dump trucks at the mine gates and unloading dirt and rocks to build barricades, the private Beta news agency reported.
In Belgrade, high school students blocked a downtown squares with garbage containers and tens of thousands opposition supporters marched to the government statistics bureau, which counted the votes from last month's election. Marchers chanted: "Thieves! Thieves!"
Barricades remained up around Cacak, where almost all shops remained shut. Merchants displayed signs in the windows proclaiming: "Closed because of Robbery," alluding to the contested vote count.
Striking railroad workers cut lines from Serbia to Yugoslavia's smaller republic, Montenegro.
In Nis, about 400 workers walked out a tobacco factory, carrying a huge photograph of Milosevic draped in black cloth as a sign of mourning.
"All Serbs know by now that Milosevic lost the elections - except the electoral commission," Nis Mayor Zoran Zivkovic told 10,000 people gathered for a rally.
Milosevic remained defiant. His spokesman, Nikola Sainovic, accused the opposition of "brutally lying" in its claims to have won the first-round balloting.
"They want chaos in the streets in order to trigger foreign intervention," Sainovic said.