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Yugoslavia goes wild over fifth championship

Belgraders watch large screens showing the final game

Belgrade, YUGOSLAVIA, September 9 (Reuters) - A wave of national pride and joy swept Yugoslavia early on Monday as the country's basketball team won the world championship for the fifth time, beating Argentina in an 84-77 thriller in Indianapolis.

In downtown Belgrade more than 150,000 fans filled the streets well beyond midnight with deafening parades of honking cars, firecrackers, flags, whistles and boisterous singing, accompanied by occasional bursts of gunfire.

It was the biggest street party in Belgrade since the regime of former president Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in October, 2000.

This will be the fifth and last time Yugoslavia wins the world championship, though. The country, a federation made up of Serbia and Montenegro, will cease to exist by the end of this year as the two republics form a looser union under a new name.

There were euphoric scenes up and down the land as people jumped up from their television sets to join the celebrations, cheering and applauding from doorways and balconies in the middle of the night.

For a country with little to boast about in recent years, the road to triumph at Indianapolis was sweetened last week by overcoming the basketball squad of the United States, which led the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and considers the game its special preserve.

"Yugoslavia World Basketball Champions. U.S. Sanctions to Follow," predicted one Belgrade wit.

"This is the best day of my life and certainly a historic one for Yugoslavia. It shows that the power of will can produce wonderful things," said Marko, a 28-year old baker.

"It is just what the country needed and we should all follow the example set by our heroes," he added.

Barely an hour after the match, liquor was nowhere to be found in any of the shops or kiosks near the city center.

"We've sold everything we have, there are only a few beverages left," said a shopkeeper at the central Republic Square with a broad smile on his face.

Abundant supplies of alcohol, however, seemed to take their toll later in the night as police reported several minor incidents in which a total of 32 people were slightly injured.

It said it had arrested 77 offenders for unruly conduct and pressed charges against 66 of them.

"I just hope this doesn't get out of hand as some people here don't know what they are doing," an unnamed police officer said as a motorcyclist performed a back-wheel stunt to the delight of a dozen teenage girls looking on.

National dailies splashed the news over their front pages.

In Cacak, central Serbia, brass bands played until dawn. In Banja Luka, capital of Bosnia's Serb Republic, 10,000 filled the central square. They flooded the streets in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, and lit up the sky with fireworks.

In a message of congratulation, President Vojislav Kostunica called the national squad "unbelievably courageous and a little bit crazy," and praised their sportsmanship throughout the tournament.

"The only thing is, you destroy the nerves," he told them.

The team was due to return home from the United States on Tuesday evening, and Belgrade was braced for another night of ecstatic celebration.

Copyright © 2004 Office of Media Relations
Email: ooc@srbija.sr.gov.yu