Assault On The Serbs: Serbs' Solzhenitsyn sells his country's softer side

Yugoslav Reaction
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The Independent Online
VUK DRASKOVIC was in an amiable mood yesterday afternoon. Looking ever more like Alexander Solzhenitsyn - the beard is darker but the eyes are the same - the Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister called for new talks over Kosovo, but only after Nato's bombing had ended. In the first Serb political response to the air strikes, he demanded a halt to the military offences, no more "ultimatums" from Nato leaders and an agreement for Kosovo that emphasised its inclusion in Serbia while guaranteeing human rights, equality of opportunity for people of all ethnic and religious groups and even an "international presence".

Wasn't this, some of us wondered, what the American negotiator Richard Holbrooke thought he had agreed with President Slobodan Milosevic last October? But there were a few changes to the plan. Those who had bombed Serbia could not be part of such a "presence" - Mr Draskovic insisted it could not be a military force - and a peace would have to be based on a suggestion by President Bill Clinton which, he claimed, ensured Serbia's control over the province.

General Wesley Clark, on the other hand - and Mr Draskovic singled out the Nato commander as a man of deceit - had talked of how America would "train" the Kosovo Liberation Army.

This was in total violation of the Rambouillet accords which - and here, again, this was his claim - did not once mention the word "Serbia". But with Mr Draskovic's proposal accepted, Serbia could sign a Kosovo peace agreement in - and here he paused for a long moment - "a day".

If peace in a day was on Mr Draskovic's mind, the Yugoslav Information Minister, Milan Komnenic, had war very much on his.

Forty "facilities and installations" had been bombed on Thursday night and Friday morning, he told a press conference in Belgrade - military installations, telecommunication centres, command posts, air defence facilities and airports; pretty much what Nato itself was claiming to have bombed. Yugoslav air defences had "inflicted major damage to the aggressor" - which Nato would not have agreed with - and "the troops defended their Fatherland honourably and with true courage".

This latter statement was in line with the massive oil painting on the wall to the right of Messrs Draskovic and Komnenic depicting a group of unarmed Serb communists being shot and bayoneted to death by royalist officers after the First World War. The Serb as proud victim; the theme seemed somehow fitting when modern-day Serbia was being presented as a nation that had never - ever - provoked a war with the West, the Muslims of Bosnia or the Kosovo Albanians.

Both men went out of their way to present an altogether softer image of Serbia. Journalists were welcomed profusely to their press conference - the few foreign reporters had priority at question time - and Mr Komnenic promised to obtain details of civilian casualties the moment they were provided by the Yugoslav military authorities.

In fact, Belgrade residents are well aware of the bombings. And several television stations have given details. On the first night of Nato's attacks, for example, Belgrade inhabitants saw fires burning in the Fourth of July military compound at Vozdovac and at the Utva military aircraft factory at Pancevo on the Danube. Radio stations also reported an attack on the Zarkovo Military Technical Institute that wounded several civilians. Several Belgrade residents have spoken of hearing the "humming" of planes - they were almost certainly hearing cruise missiles.

The Ministry of Commerce in Belgrade has, meanwhile, issued strict orders to prevent price increases or money speculation. But cooking oil, sugar and milk are in short supply in some shops and a litre of diesel fuel is now selling for five German marks. It cost less than one German mark scarcely 48 hours ago. Yet the Yugoslav dinir remains steady at nine to the deutschemark; oddly, it has gained in strength in the past two days.