War In The Balkans: Montenegro mobilises as it fears Serbian take- over

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MONTENEGRIN FORCES have taken up positions at the end of the deep gorge that is the route into their small republic. In the capital, Podgorica, they have surrounded public buildings and the television station. The units are from the special police, a force that in most other countries would be considered soldiers.

They stand at intervals of a few metres around the presidential building, heavily armed, wearing fatigues, helmets and body armour. Montenegro's government is sending a clear message to President Slobodan Milosovic - "if provoked we will stand and fight".

There are rumours throughout this city of an imminent takeover by soldiers of the federal government. Serbia's smaller, weaker partner in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has been moving towards breakaway for many years and it fears President Milosovic is about to use the cover of Nato strikes to re-assert his failing power here. They are not being paranoid. It's reliably reported that senior figures in the Yugoslav army units based in Montenegro have been replaced by hard-liners more loyal to President Milosovic.

The allies are taking the threat seriously. The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, yesterday warned President Milosovic against opening up a new front against Montenegro. He said the Yugoslav President "should not now try to create trouble in Montenegro. He is in enough trouble himself. He has neither the time not the resources to fight there."

Montenegro's Deputy Prime Minster, Dragisa Burzan, told me yesterday that there is an imminent danger of a military confrontation between Montenegro and Serbia. "That is in the hands of the federal authorities," he said. "If they are looking for any kind of confrontation that is there decision not ours. We are not those who will stir up anything. We will try to do everything to stop major disruption here." But even before the Nato strikes, Mr Milosovic had made moves on Montenegro. He attempted to take editorial control of the television station, but was rebuffed by Montenegro's government. It made a show of putting armed units in place around the building. That time Mr Milosovic backed down.

It's widely accepted here that Mr Milosovic's hand has been strengthened, not weakened, by Nato action. When Montenegro was first hit by Nato bombs, Western diplomats privately expressed surprise. They worried about the destabilising effect the action would have. Yesterday Mr Cook all but apologised for the action in a televised briefing in London. He said: "A number of installations integral to [Yugoslavia's] air defence system had to be attacked, we had no choice. We've taken every possible step to limit and restrain those attacks."

On the streets of Podgorica there are daily, angry demonstrations by those who support President Milosovic. They vilify Nato and its political leaders. As each night of bombing passes there is a subtle but definite shift back towards the President. In the city's park under a statue of one of Montenegro's historic figures a woman told me: "What NATO are doing makes you feel like you really don't want to sign the Kosovo peace agreement. I'm generally against Milosovic's policy, at least I was before all this happened. Now I don't know. It's not good."

Intellectuals in Montenegro believe damage has been done and is irreparable. Srdan Darmanovic, of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, called the Nato action here a political catastrophe. "War is always very dangerous for pro-democracy forces, and in Montenegro pro-democratic forces are in power," he said. "All pro-democracy powers in Montenegro are in danger from this war. War is a paradise for all political forces who want to go back and it is a paradise for Milosovic and his supporters."

The fallout from fighting across the border in Kosovo is also destabilising Montenegro. Since Saturday over 32,000 Kosovo Albanians have arrived here, fleeing their homeland in fear of their lives.

They have joined 25,000Kosovars who took refuge here earlier in the conflict and 21 thousand people from the Croatian and Bosnian wars. Fourteen per cent of the population is now made up of people displaced from their homes in other republics and countries. The government says Montenegro, economically crippled by sanctions as part of Yugoslavia, cannot support the desperate for much longer.

On Tuesday night in Podgorica, a church which is a temporary home to some Kosovo Albanians was hit by gunfire. It's presumed that the gunmen were part of the nine per cent of Montenegro which is Serbian.

Deputy Prime Minister Burzan says Serbs in this republic, and their sympathisers, are angered by the presence of the Kosovo Albanians and by the burden they impose. He fears a backlash. He looks pensive, considers the crisis and tells me: "This situation is potentially explosive."