War in The Balkans: Air strikes halt Danube traffic

Economic Damage
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BLOCKED BY rubble and its bridges destroyed by Nato jets, Serbia's stretch of the Blue Danube is no longer the romantic waterway immortalised by Johann Strauss.

International shipping along Europe's main waterway has halted, as boats are unable to navigate past the Serbian town of Novi Sad. Piles of debris lie underwater after Nato air strikes destroyed the city's three Danube bridges.

Even if Nato strikes against Serbia stop in the near future, international river traffic on the Danube is unlikely to resume this year, said Peter Balas, the deputy state secretary at the Hungarian Economics Ministry. In a normal year, about 10 millions tons of freight travels along the river through Yugoslavia, but nothing is moving now.

The blocked Danube is an economic disaster for Europe's shipping companies, and could cause knock-on effects on the countries it flows through if the conflict continues. Some are already preparing to sack workers now that the great river is unnavigable. "Experts estimate that even if the conflict is settled soon, shipping on the Danube could not be revived this year," said Mr Balas.

Nato destroyed the first bridge at Novi Sad, 45 miles north of Belgrade, on 1 April, early on in its campaign against Serbia. The city's last bridge was hit on Wednesday. Earlier Nato hit the bridge at Smederevo, east of Belgrade.

The destruction of the bridges at Novi Sad has left dozens of ships and tons of freight trapped on the river, causing a region-wide blockage. In Hungary, goods have been loaded on to trains instead but in Romania 60 ships bound for Austria, Germany and Hungary remain blocked at ports on the Yugoslav border.

At the same time there are fears that the Nato bombardment of petrochemical factories in Serbia could trigger an environmental catastrophe. Serb officials claimed that the bombing of the Pancevo refinery, north-east of Belgrade, was causing a cross-border environmental hazard that could spread along the entire length of the Danube.

But the blocking of the Danube has more than economic and environmental implications. The Danube is a living symbol of the Continent, pre-dating and outlasting the empires, ideologies and ruling armies that have stomped across its banks, whether Roman, Magyar, Turkish, Nazi or Communist. At 1,767 miles long, the Danube is second only to the Volga among European rivers. Eulogised in countless songs and poems, the river starts in the GermanAlps and then cuts through Austria, Slovakia and Hungary down to Serbia, and then through Romania to the Black Sea, binding the continent together and linking Western and Central Europe with the Balkans

In Vienna it is tucked away in a drab suburb, but in the Slovak capital of Bratislava it widens out, thundering underneath the ugly Communist- era bridge commemorating the anti-Nazi Slovak National Uprising in 1944. But it is perhaps in Budapest, a city built on its banks, that it reaches its most panoramic sweep, highlighted by the series of graceful bridges that arch over its rushing waters.

Novi Sad, the northern Serbian city that has now become one of Nato's main targets, was once an important Hapsburg river post and it still retains the architectural grandeur of the Austro-Hungarianera. Capital of the region known as Vojvodina, the cosmopolitan city is home to many ethnic minorities such as Hungarians, Czechs and Romanians. Its bridges symbolise the city's place as Catholic Europe's gateway to the Orthodox lands of the Balkans.

Bridges have a special resonance here. The Nobel prize winning Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andric's best-known work is entitled "Bridge on the Drina", a hymn to the multi-ethnic tolerance that once characterised Bosnia, and whose last vestiges live on - just - in Vojvodina.

In Novi Sad they recite an old poem about the city's former glory days: "The glorious town, it lies by hill and valley, The bridge divides the Danube, boats float down." But it will be a long time now before the boats float down the Danube through Novi Sad again.