War in The Balkans: Baptism of Nato fire for Hungary

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The Independent Online
HUNGARY FACES its Nato baptism of fire this weekend as newly arrived US F-18 Hornet fighter-bombers are readied to strike at Yugoslavia from the Taszar base, only 40 miles from the border.

Hungarian military officials admit joining Nato's onslaught on the Milosevic regime was not what they expected when they joined the western alliance last month, with Poland and the Czech Republic.

The two dozen F-18s are stirring unwelcome national memories. The last time Hungary aided an attack on its Yugoslav neighbour the Prime Minister, Pal Teleki, shot himself dead in protest. That was in 1941, after the Regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, allowed German troops to cross Hungary and invade Yugoslavia.

Hungary may remember the Leon Trotsky warning to those who sought to escape the Russian Revolution: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." So Hungary knows now that Nato membership comes at a price.

"I was part of the preparations for Hungary joining Nato, but we did not expect that 12 days after joining we would have this task," said General Istvan Nemeth, deputy head of the Hungarian air force.

Hungarian military leaders hope Serbia's armed forces have been sufficiently "degraded" to prevent retaliatory attacks on their land. "Hungary is not going to become a target, and even less so now, after two months, because Nato has destroyed the Serb air force," said General Nemeth.

There are other fears. When Operation Allied Force ends, Yugoslavia will still be Hungary's neighbour and some relationship must be rebuilt.

There are also worries about the 300,000 Hungarians living in northern Serbia, in the province of Vojvodina. Hungarian MPs in the governing centre- right coalition say bombs launched from F-18s based at Taszar will not distinguish between Serbs and ethnic Hungarians.

Taszar is the Nato air base nearest to Yugoslav territory. Deep in rural Hungary, the base and surrounding village is already becoming a mini-America, where cars have Florida number plates and American accents echo across the narrow streets.

Attacking Yugoslavia from Taszar is part of Nato's overall extension of Operation Allied Force, to degrade and destroy Yugoslav land forces before any possible ground invasion in the summer.

One western defence expert said: "This is a step change, the first time Nato will be using an offensive weapons platform from Hungary against President Milosevic."

US pilots and officers of Marine Aircraft Group 31 appear confident about their forthcoming raids. A pilot said: "The biggest danger is that the Yugoslavs still have very capable surface to air defences, both missiles and anti-aircraft artillery, so we will mostly fly at night."

Hungarian officers are less distinctly unenthusiastic about Operation Allied Force. Hungary's leaders have already had to backtrack from their earlier request that the province of northern Serbia known as Vojvodina, which is home to Serbia's ethnic Magyars, be spared Nato strikes.

Vojvodina's capital, Novi Sad, has suffered sustained attack, and all the city's bridges across the Danube have been destroyed. Now the ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina will have to endure bombs dropped from aircraft based on Hungarian territory.

Talk of a full-scale invasion of Serbia, an end-game scenario that could see Nato tanks rolling across the Hungarian border on to the flatlands of Vojvodina, is causing nervousness around the country, a feeling boosted by Nato's determination to launch even more air strikes.

Seventy per cent of Hungarians oppose granting Nato the use of Hungarian territory in any possible ground offensive against Yugoslavia, according to an opinion poll published in the newspaper Nepszabadsag. More than half of those polled, 63 per cent, wanted the Nato bombing campaign to end.

Some MPs in the governing coalition are increasingly restive over Hungary's new role in Nato, although the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has given his support to the air campaign.

Mr Orban has been told that as a member of Nato, his government must stand firm in line with alliance policy. One Western diplomat said: "He will have had his ear bent by President Clinton when he was in Washington. Clinton will have given him the hard line."

But Hungarian officials strongly deny any ground assault on Serbia is on the agenda. Such an attack, if launched from Hungarian soil, would require permission of the parliament.