With a minute's silence, more than 50,000 Serbs rallied in a farewell tribute Saturday to former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, hours ahead of a home town burial with none of his close family on hand to mourn him.
Around 50,000 Serbs mourned at the official public send-off for the former Yugoslav leader
Chanting "Slobo, the Serb!" carrying photographs and banners, they packed the spacious avenue in front of the federal parliament where his coffin lay on a raised, covered platform.
Party officials demanded a dignified farewell, then called for a minute's silence for "our president."
"Those who are attacking him are not even fit enough to tie his shoelaces," said Milorad Vucelic, a senior official in the Socialist Party which arranged the send-off here after authorities refused a state funeral for the indicted war criminal.
Some in the crowd carried photographs of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb leaders wanted for war crimes by the same UN court which was trying their mentor Milosevic when he died of a heart attack a week ago.
War crimes suspects in attendance
Several former Yugoslav army generals were also present, including the war crimes suspect Dragoljub Ojdanic, a Milosevic general who has been released by the tribunal pending trial.
Senior party officials spoke, some close to tears, as loyalists stood as a guard of honor beside the coffin in front of the parliament, famously stormed by pro-democracy protesters in the October 2000 uprising that toppled him.
In Pozarevac, Milosevic's home town 70 kilometers (43 miles) southeast of here, a newly-dug grave awaits him in the grounds of the family home, below a linden tree where he first kissed his future wife.
Tens of thousands expected at home town burial
Milosevic is expected to enter Serb legend despite his crimes
Party officials have said the 15:00 UTC burial would be private, but they expect tens of thousands to flood to his birthplace. Several hundred were already watching the Belgrade ceremony on a town centre screen.
Opponents of his regime, who have slammed what they call attempts over the past week at "glorification" of his 13-year autocratic rule, have organized a counter-rally in a central Belgrade square to coincide with the burial.
Milosevic was standing trial at the UN court in The Hague on more than 60 charges over his leading role in the bloody 1990s Balkans conflicts, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, when he was found dead last Saturday in his prison cell.
Mihajlo Markovic, a close Milosevic ally, called him "one of the greatest sons of the Serbian people."
"Our Slobodan has gone into history," he added. "Rarely is such a man born, able to arouse such power in the people, to unite so many people."
"Wanted" family members stay away
The former president's passing is threatening to reopen old wounds
Party officials confirmed neither Mira Markovic nor the couple's son Marko were returning for the funeral. They said "threats and blackmail" had prevented them flying in from Russia, where they now live, and accused authorities in Serbia of failing to provide guarantees she would not be arrested.
Milosevic's daughter Marija, who lives in Montenegro, Serbia's federation partner, said she would not go either because of a family row over where her father should be buried. She was to attend a church requiem instead.
Milosevic's elder brother Borislav, who lives in Moscow, is recovering from a heart operation and cannot attend.
Slobodan Milosevic was toppled after his 13 years of bully-boy nationalism shattered the Balkans, lost four wars, ruined the economy and isolated him and his nation from the international community.
Victims of Slobo's wars shed no tears
The slaughter at Srebrenica is a drak stain on the region's soul
In Srebrenica, the Bosnian town where some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces in Europe's worst massacre since World War II, there was no sympathy for the death of a man many say escaped justice.
"Why would I care for him? All I can think of is finding my husband's body and give him a proper burial," Zejneba Cengic, who returned to Srebrenica in 2002, said.
Meanwhile anti-Milosevic activists in Serbia prepared for their own rally here later Saturday.
Marjan Milosavljevic, a 27-year-old student, said he had already bought 30 balloons, the emblem the protesters have chosen. "Some of the balloons are for my friends who have fled the country because of Milosevic," he said. "But they were thrilled with this action and wanted to support it somehow. This is going to be our last protest and our final message to this brute."