The War in the Balkans: Serbia warned to stop blockade

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YUGOSLAVIA'S pro-Western republic of Montenegro moved closer to armed confrontation with the forces of President Slobodan Milosevic yesterday when it threatened to use force to remove Yugoslav army checkpoints blocking the frontier with Croatia.

The army, which Mr Milosevic controls, arbitrarily closed the frontier crossing on Tuesday in an attempt to isolate Montenegro from the outside world. But the authorities in the capital, Podgorica, said they would take on the army, in spite of fears that this might trigger a coup against Montenegro's elected government.

"The blockade will not last long because we will clear it," said the Deputy Prime Minister, Dragisa Burzan. "First we will warn the army nicely, but if they do not move then I predict we will not be discussing things."

Montenegro has refused to take part in Serbia's confrontation with the West over Kosovo and has infuriated Belgrade by accepting 65,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from the province, a huge number for a poor republic with a population of only 700,000.

On Tuesday Mr Burzan accused the Yugoslav army of committing war crimes inside Montenegro, after reports that troops had crossed from Serbia days before and killed six Kosovo refugees near the town of Rozaje. The army boasted yesterday that it had "liquidated four terrorists". The Montenegrins said the dead included a woman aged 70 and a boy agead 13.

Mr Burzan accused the army of attempting to stage a coup by stealth against the republic's government. "Step by step they are trying to become a parallel authority, and by doing this, they are increasing the possibility of conflict," he said. "I can say that we are close to the line."

Montenegro's opposition Socialist party plans a pro-Milosevic rally in Podgorica today. The demonstrators want to increase pressure on the Montenegrin President, Milo Djukanovic, to place his police force under the command of the Yugoslav army, a demand he has so far strongly resisted.