Angry citizens caught in the fog of war

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"I GIVE YOU bread - you send me missiles," the waiter muttered to me at breakfast, and it was hard to disagree. The Belgrade bread was fresh and soft, the missiles rather familiar.

The Yugoslav air force shot down at least one of them on Thursday night over the Tosca mountain - which accounts for the claims of destroyed aircraft, so swiftly denied by Nato - and several witnesses saw the Yugoslav ground to air rocket destroy the American Tomahawk missile in an enormous mid- air explosion. This did nothing to assuage the waiter.

The people of Belgrade had just spent two hours in their basements, street lights switched off and house lights dimmed, after Yugoslav radar showed a large force of B-52s flying towards the capital. The sirens howled over the city but the aircraft never came, just a series of low, distant explosions. And yesterday morning, the streets were almost as deserted as they had been at night, the old faux Austro-Hungarian buildings with their flaking, empty facades lowering over boulevards in which petrol shortages have reduced traffic to a few rattling pale blue trams, cigarette vendors the only businessmen with a trade.

But no one in this ghost city doubts that their country is at war. Serb television has shown film of Nato bomb damage in the countryside, including a burning aircraft factory at Batunica. I had seen it earlier with my own eyes, blazing away into the night, showers of sparks climbing behind a screen of trees, smoke cowling the fields around it, an old MiG jet still propped pointlessly on a concrete stand beside the front gate. Nor is the Belgrade government making any secret of the targets. The first Serb fatalities are all reported to be military personnel. State radio has talked of 20 military installations hit within the first 24 hours of the air bombardment which - given Nato's claim of 50 targets in 48 hours - is undoubtedly correct.

But like all wars, this conflict contains its own dark rumours, some true, some plainly false. Studio B Television here talked briefly of heavy casualties among Serb refugees from Krajina - that district of Croatia from which they were ethnically cleansed by Franjo Tudjman's thugs in 1995 - when Nato aircraft struck a bomb shelter in which they were said to be hiding in Zarkova. From Kosovo came stories of Albanian "terrorist" atrocities. Claims of village executions in Kosovo by Serb forces are watched here on the BBC World service, whose broadcasts engender a mixture of astonishment - when, for example, it yesterday reported Nato aircraft taking off to bomb Serbia but which never arrive here - and of hilarity.

George Robertson's execrable pronunciation of Serb towns bombed by Nato produced hoots of derision among diners in my Belgrade restaurant and I had to leave to survey the city when the Secretary of State for Defence announced that the notorious war criminal, Arkan, had sent his men "touting their wares" - whatever that meant - on the streets of Belgrade. Alas for Mr Robertson's fantasy. Only the cigarette sellers had wares to tout.

Even when the air raid sirens wailed again in mid- afternoon yesterday, I could find only a chemist shutting up shop and a father taking his two small sons to a cafe for soft drinks in the warm afternoon.

This is, of course, not a city in which to display a British or American passport. "Please don't tell me you reporters tell the truth," a bar owner told me."Please don't tell me that you tell the truth in England."

A whole regiment of nicknames for Western leaders has gone the rounds in Belgrade. The US Secretary of State is known as "Medved Albright" - Bear Albright, the animal in question being regarded as blundering and stupid rather than powerful - while our Foreign Secretary is known as "Djaba Cook", "Djaba" being the Serbian word for a frog.

Yet if anger at the West runs deep, it can be oddly coy. After Anglo- US air raids on Iraq the people of Baghdad are given free rein to curse. But those Serb civilians who appear on state television to condemn the attacks talk Soviet-style of "Nato pact aggression" or remind their audience - as the Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister, Vuk Draskovic, did yesterday - that they could never imagine being bombed by Serbia's allies in two World Wars.

"I wish, I really wish the Americans would come here to Belgrade," my hotel manager, Dragan, announced over coffee. "Then I could go like this." And he ground his heel into the frayed hotel carpet.

Scarcely an hour later, guests crowded round the BBC to hear a Kosovo Albanian announcing that Nato forces might have to enter Kosovo on the ground to save his people. Both Dragan and the Kosovar are going to be disappointed. Nato is not going to risk the bones of a single Grenadier in the Balkans, either to fight the Serbs or to save the Kosovars. Which is why, I suppose, Nato has to go on telling us there will be more - and more - air raids.

The Bulgarian Deputy President arrived here to announce that Nato's Secretary General, Javier Solana and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair "have done more than Hitler did". Meanwhile the Serbian Prime Minister, Mirko Marjanovic, performed the life-goes-on-as-usual routine necessary to all states at war: he opened - wait for it - Belgrade's 38th International Motor Show.

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