War In The Balkans: Magyars in Serbia - Threat to 300,000 Hungarians

FOR THE 300,000 ethnic Hungarians living in northern Serbia, the future is full of fear. Living in the region known as Vojvodina, they are the biggest ethnic minority so far left untouched in Serbia.

Like the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo they are concentrated in one region, hostages-in- waiting should President Slobodan Milosevic turn his forces on them once Kosovo has been fully "ethnically cleansed".

That in turn could trigger a regional conflict if Hungary went to their defence. The war has already reached their doorsteps. Vojvodina's capital, the city of Novi Sad, has been repeatedly bombed, its Danube bridges now lying broken and destroyed in the water.

"The people here are frightened of war," said Laszlo Jozsa, vice-president of the Alliance of Hungarians in Vojvodina. "They see what is happening in Kosovo, which is a bad sign of our possible future."

Large numbers of ethnic Hungarians have been drafted into the Yugoslav army to fight in Kosovo, as they were in Serbia's earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina.

"The draft is very intense and that is an additional trouble for us," Mr Jozsa said. Many Hungarians in Vojvodina are worried by Hungary's new role as a Nato member and have noticed the way that the state-controlled Serbian media always emphasises Hungarian support for the air strikes.

"The official Serbian media said airplanes were coming from Hungary, and that the fighter planes leaving Yugoslavia headed back towards Hungary. The involvement of Hungary, however minimal, is obvious," said Mr Jozsa. Some Vojvodina Hungarians are angry at Budapest's support.

"We sit at our Easter table eating together with the family, while bombs fall on our head, and destroy our bridges," said one woman in Novi Sad, who asked not to be identified.

"Hungarians on the other side of the border are making a lot of noise about Nato and Budapest's policy does not help the Hungarians here. The least they can do is stop making such a big advertisement for Nato," she said. Hungary, the only Nato member country to border Serbia, is walking a delicate tightrope as it balances its military obligations as a member of the Western alliance with fears for the safety of the minority living in Serbia. Hungary joined the alliance on 12 March with Poland and the Czech Republic.

Yugoslavia has warned its neighbours to stay out of any Nato attacks. But last month the Hungarian parliament voted to let Nato use both its airspace and military airfields for strikes against Yugoslavia. In October the parliament only allowed the use of Hungarian airspace. But Hungary has ruled out letting its armed forces take any active role in military actions against Yugoslavia.

Leaders of the ethnic Hungarian community in Vojvodina, such as Laszlo Jozsa, fear that the longer the war against Serbia continues, the more likely inter-ethnic tension is to rise.

"The souls of the people get tired and there is a risk of rising ethnic intolerance, and that this benevolent attitude will disappear," he said.