Prisoners freed as Yugoslav government seeks to quell protests

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - Authorities freed 14 Serbs and one ethnic Albanian on Friday, sending a message that new President Vojislav Kostunica's government is willing to meet some prisoner demands after six days of riots in major detention centers.

In exchange, the prisoners said they would hand in their bats and clubs and allow guards to return in to control the prisons. By midday, however, officials reached by phone at the jail in Sremska Mitrovica in northern Yugoslavia said plans to release inmates there were temporarily shelved as the ''prisoners seemed uncooperative.''

A stalemate was also under way in Nis, 110 miles south of Belgrade, where the prison warden, Miodrag Djordjevic, said there was no cooperation with the inmates.

Serbia's justice minister, Sead Spahovic planned to negotiate with the prisoners in the three detention centers later Friday.

The riots began Sunday in Sremska Mitrovica, after Serbian inmates learned authorities were considering amnesty for ethnic Albanian political prisoners and accused the government of discrimination. The uprising spread to Nis and Pozarevac, as convicts also protested poor living conditions inside the derelict prisons.

The rioting left one inmate dead.

Over the past week, Justice Ministry authorities from Kostunica's government have met with inmates, brokering a deal in exchange for the reinstatement of order in the major detention centers in Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

The 15 inmates freed Friday had three months or less remaining in their prison terms for criminal sentences, said Stipe Marusic, the chief warden at Pozarevac, 50 miles east of Belgrade.

In Nis, Djordjevic said there was little contact with inmates.

''They are surviving on lunch parcels brought in by the Red Cross and what they had looted from the supply room,'' he said, adding that the guards' only contact with the inmates - who still control most of the prison - was during the morning delivery of bread.

Five Serbs and three Albanians were released from Nis on Friday, after having served their sentences. They were not included in the negotiated deal.

If order is restored, Serbia's Justice Ministry has pledged to expand the amnesty law to include Serbs doing time for some nonpolitical crimes, as well as to free ethnic Albanians convicted of political crimes during the Kosovo conflict.

The riots have threatened Kostunica's administration because of the perception that a loss of control of the prisons is an indication that the new government's grip on the entire society is weak.

Serbia's pro-democracy police chief, Stevan Nikcevic, said Friday that the riots were ''directed from outside the prisons, from a single power center, which is not under control'' of the pro-democracy forces.

''The police bears part of the responsibility for the riots, it failed to obtain information that they were being carefully prepared,'' Nikcevic said, without elaborating.


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