War In The Balkans: Belgrade - Serbia calls on Russia to supply military aid

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The Independent Online
SERBIA WAS reported to have requested military aid from Russia in the war with Nato, as the conflict shows more signs of spilling beyond the borders of former Yugoslavia.

The chief of Russia's general staff did not rule out offering military help to Yugoslavia but said he saw no need for it at present. "Assistance is possible, depending on the situation," General Anatoly Kvashnin said. Moscow said parts of the US F-117 stealth fighter lost over Serbia last week had been flown to Russia.

As east-west tension increases over the Kosovo crisis, there were calls in Turkey for Ankara, which sympathises with the Kosovo Albanians, to block the planned passage through the Bosphorus of a Russian ship, the Liman, heading for the Mediterranean to monitor the conflict in the Balkans.

The Liman left the Black Sea port of Sevastopol at dawn yesterday. The announcement that Russia may send half a dozen reconnaissance ships to the Mediterranean has drawn expressions of alarm from the US that this may give "the wrong signal" to the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Belgrade's reported plea for arms would contradict Serbia's claim that the war with the Kosovo Albanians, and with Nato, is heading towards a rapid, triumphant conclusion.

Serbian state television announced yesterday that the rebel fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army had been wiped out in their last remaining strongholds in the hilly centre of the province and that the war was, in effect, over.

The claim was disputed by Nato, which insisted that the KLA had not been defeated but was regrouping and continuing to hold out in the central Pagarusa valley and elsewhere. Nato's military spokesman, Air Commodore David Wilby, said Nato air strikes were slowing the Yugoslav army's offensive in Kosovo, in spite of claims that the allied air campaign has run into trouble. "This cat and mouse activity is causing them [the Yugoslav army] to use up critical fuel supplies," he said, adding that fuel shortages caused by Nato air strikes had immobilised an entire army battle group near Djakovica, in southern Kosovo.

And in spite of its apparent victory, the Serbia government continued yesterday to use the conflict to strengthen its authoritarian grip on the media.

Although most opposition politicians and media outlets have loyally backed the Yugoslav President in his confrontation with Nato, and have largely turned a blind eye to the humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo, an increasingly paranoid government seems determined to shut them down.

The most popular independent Belgrade radio station, B-92, was closed yesterday when uniformed police burst inside, interrupting its broadcast. They handed down a court order, saying the B-92 director, Sasa Mirkovic, was dismissed and replaced with Aleksandar Nikacevic, a Milosevic loyalist.

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