BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro – Slobodan Milosevic's flag-draped coffin went on public display Thursday for hundreds of tearful supporters paying their last respects to the late Serbian leader who died while being tried for war crimes.
A large framed color photograph of Milosevic was placed in front of the casket in a red-carpeted room inside Belgrade's Museum of Revolution, a gallery once devoted to former Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito.
Dozens of mourners stormed into the museum once it opened, shouting "Slobo! Slobo!" But after the initial chaos, a line formed with people passing by the closed casket with heads bowed, some sobbing, others making the sign of the cross. Those waiting outside lit candles in the snow.
The turnout was far lower than organizers' predictions of tens of thousands of mourners, and nowhere near the huge crowds Milosevic commanded in his heyday.
Workers in Milosevic's hometown of Pozarevac, where he will be buried Saturday, dug his grave Thursday in the backyard of the family estate beneath a linden tree that Serbian media said was the place where he first kissed his wife.
Milosevic died March 11 at a U.N. detention center in the Netherlands near the war crimes tribunal that was trying him on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Reflecting the controversy about Milosevic's legacy, Serbia's government has refused to hold a state ceremony, leaving it to his family and his Socialist allies to organize the funeral.
Along the cobblestone path leading to the museum entrance Milosevic's mostly elderly followers stood in silence or sobbed quietly. Many clutched red roses — the symbol of Milosevic's Socialist Party.
Milivoje Zivkovic, 81, limped his way up to the museum with a cane to pay tribute to "the man who loved his country more than any other Serb."
"It is insane that such a Serb hero, the best of all, is gone," said Mirko Lekic, 62, a chef who said he "cried like a baby" when Milosevic's death was announced.
Milorad Vucelic, the Socialist Party deputy president who organized Thursday's viewing, said he expected Milosevic's widow, Mirjana Markovic, to arrive Friday from Moscow. Markovic, who lives in Russia in self-imposed exile, has indicated she would not come until all charges against her for alleged abuse of power during Milosevic's reign were dropped.
Milosevic's brother, Borislav, will not attend because he is recovering from heart surgery in Russia, according to Russian news agencies.
After the Socialists were refused permission to display Milosevic's coffin at several other more prominent locations, including the downtown federal parliament building, the Socialists opted for the Museum of Revolution.
The decaying building in Belgrade's plush Dedinje district used to hold numerous gifts Tito received from foreign statesmen during his iron-fisted rule of ex-Yugoslavia from World War II until his death in 1981. It has been closed for years due to a lack of visitors.
The museum is only a few hundred yards from Tito's grave and from Milosevic's old residence, where he was arrested on April 1, 2001, before his extradition to The Hague tribunal two months later.
Museum director Ljijljana Cetinic said she did not approve the display of Milosevic's coffin there, which she said was "turning the museum into a funeral parlor."
Questions have swirled this week about Milosevic's death. His son, Marko, says he was poisoned, while the tribunal says he had a heart attack, although toxicology results have not been announced. Russia says Milosevic did not receive proper treatment.
Milosevic's body will be taken for private burial Saturday in the industrial town of Pozarevac, about 30 miles southeast of Belgrade, his party comrades said. The city council, dominated by Milosevic allies, voted unanimously Thursday to allow the unusual burial arrangements.
The Socialists, ousted from power along with Milosevic in 2000, are hoping to make political gains from his death.
They had wanted a funeral with state honors at a cemetery reserved for prominent Serbs, but authorities rejected that demand.
Socialist Party official Zoran Andjelkovic demanded that Saturday be proclaimed a day of mourning in Serbia "because this is a burial by the people, not a party."
Although Milosevic's followers hold municipal power in Pozarevac, Belgrade is dominated by the pro-Western Democratic Party led by President Boris Tadic — a bloc determined to avoid anything that could be seen as legitimizing Milosevic or his policies.
In pressing for a Belgrade ceremony, the Socialists threatened to topple the minority government if Milosevic were denied a funeral in Serbia.