Serb troops deserting in droves, claims Nato

NATO SAID it detected growing signs that support in Serbia for the Milosevic regime was cracking, as anti-war protests gripped provincial towns and soldiers were said to be deserting in droves.

The alliance said about 1,000 Serb soldiers from Krusevac, in central Serbia, deserted their unit in Istok, northern Kosovo, earlier this week after hearing reports that riot police had attacked anti-war demonstrations which have been going on for three days in the town. The soldiers reportedly shot their way through a police checkpoint on the main road from Kosovo to Nis in Serbia.

News of the demonstrations in Krusevac on Monday and Tuesday and in nearby Alexandrovac, first surfaced in reports by the opposition Democratic Party but have now been confirmed by the Yugoslav army in Krusevac.

In a statement broadcast on local television, the army admitted demonstrations "of a destructive character" had taken place and warned participants that such protests "amount to collaboration with the enemy". It also warned locals that unauthorised gatherings "or behaviour such as spreading rumours or false information, will be dealt with according to the law prevailing in a time of war".

During the 1991-95 wars in Bosnia and Croatia the Yugoslav army faced similar protests against mobilisation. They reflected a common feeling among Serbs that while "someone" ought to go and fight the Bosnians and Croats, few parents wanted to send their own sons. Then, as now, mobilisation was often concentrated in the provinces rather Belgrade, reducing the risk of riots in the capital but fuelling unrest in the countryside.

The demonstrations in Krusevac were apparently started by mothers of conscript soldiers demanding the return of their sons from Kosovo. They are reported to have waved placards saying they wanted "sons not coffins" and thrown eggs at the town hall.

The protests are thought to have started following the return to the town of the bodies of seven dead soldiers and involved some 4,000 people at their height on Monday.

In Alexandrovac, where the bodies of three dead servicemen were returned, a protest by about 1,000 people took place. State television in Montenegro, which is part of Yugoslavia but whose government is hostile to Slobodan Milosevic, claimed the mayor was "lynched" when he refused to stop conscripts being bused to the front line in Kosovo.

Mr Milosevic's vast and well-armed paramilitary police force could easily crush the anti-war protests, even if they spread to other towns. The Yugoslav President may even use them, if he decides the time is right for a compromise settlement with Nato.

At that juncture, popular opposition to the war may enable him to sell a peace deal to the Serbian nation that safeguards his own hold on power.

Julian Manyon is ITN's special correspondent in Yugoslavia

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