Riot erupts in Serbian prisons

NIS, Yugoslavia - Police stormed a state prison in southern Serbia late Monday, trying to contain a riot that began as a hunger strike but grew out of hand as inmates burned their cells and took to rooftops demanding shortened sentences and new management.

Shouts of ''Get him'' and ''Hit him'' could be heard outside the prison as police moved into the compound, minutes after guards fired tear gas and what appeared to be warning shots to try to break up the spreading riot.

A prisoner reached by phone told The Associated Press about 1,000 inmates, including 300 ethnic Albanians, had gone on a hunger strike, demanding their sentences be reduced by 30 percent and the prison management be replaced by Wednesday.

The unrest in Nis came as more Serbian inmates, alleging that they were beaten ''like horses'' drove off guards off in a prison in Sremska Mitrovica and demanded they share in a proposed amnesty for ethnic Albanian prisoners from Kosovo.

The riot in Sremska Mitrovica, in one of Yugoslavia's largest prisons, began late Sunday and spread throughout the jail. Prisoners armed with iron bars had positioned themselves on the rooftop of one building.

Officials inside the prison said the inmates were angry that a proposed amnesty law could free ethnic Albanian political prisoners but not Serbs convicted of other crimes.

Ethnic Albanian inmates were evacuated from the prison Monday evening and taken by bus to an undisclosed location, the independent Beta news agency reported. Most of their cells were destroyed in the fire, Beta said.

Dragan Subasic, one of three Justice Ministry officials negotiating with the inmates, said three people had been hospitalized with slight injuries suffered during the riots in Sremska Mitrovica, 50 miles northwest of Belgrade.

Footage shown on Serbian TV showed two inmates, surrounded by hundreds of other cheering prisoners, complaining of severe beatings they claimed had been taking place since 1994.

''They used to beat us like horses,'' an unidentified prisoner with head bandages said, looking at the camera. ''People have been destroyed physically, psychologically and morally. They were left with no desire to live.''

Others displayed a baseball bat allegedly used by guards to beat inmates and chanted: ''Amnesty!'' and ''Down with the warden!''

In Nis, prison warden Miodrag Djordjevic confirmed that hundreds of prisoners had set fire to their cells, ransacked the jail's offices and climbed onto the roof of several buildings, demanding the justice ministers meet with them.

A prisoner who identified himself as Miomir Radosavljevic-Musa said in a telephone interview the inmates started a protest in the early evening, banging pots and making noise.

''We are ready for everything,'' Radosavljevic-Musa said. ''We have nothing to lose.''

Justice officials were not immediately available for comment.

In Sremska Mitrovica, Subasic told the prisoners there would be no more physical abuse and that the guards and the warden would be investigated. The prisoners had said that after their demands were aired on TV, they would end their protest.

However, negotiations were still under way late Monday, and a group of prisoners was refusing to back down, Beta reported.

The prison houses 1,300 inmates, including 50 foreigners and six prisoners on death row.

The amnesty law, suggested by President Vojislav Kostunica, is still at the discussion stage. It would affect political prisoners, most of them Kosovo Albanians, arrested under the tenure of former President Slobodan Milosevic.


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