War In The Balkans: Serbian Dissent - Protests flare in town of deserters

WAR IN THE BALKANS: Serbian Dissent
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ANTI-WAR protests have again flared in the town of Krusevac, 200 kilometres south-east of Belgrade, where about a thousand deserters from Kosovo returned last week. According to reports from previously reliable sources reaching the capital, trouble was apparently sparked by an announcement broadcast on local radio and television yesterday morning that the conscripts and reservists who left Kosovo without orders last Tuesday would have to return.

Soldiers and their families assembled at several points around the town and then marched to the main square chanting, "We want peace not war," and, "Kosovo is no use to the dead."

Latest reports indicate that more than a thousand protesters gathered in the city centre where large numbers of armed police were brought in by the authorities. Ambulances were standing by but there were no reports of violence or arrests, though it was said that police had placed roadblocks on approach roads to prevent people from outlying areas reinforcing the demonstrators.

Police are said to have prevented a number of conscripts from the nearby town of Alexandrovac, also the scene of anti-war protests and desertions, from driving into Krusevac to join the protests.

Meanwhile my earlier account in The Independent of the mass desertion from Kosovo last week has been confirmed by a French journalist who reached Krusevac from the south on Friday. His report, published in Le Monde, quotes one of the soldiers who deserted as saying that the men left without orders in a convoy of 70 vehicles that was observed but not attacked by Nato war planes.

The men had been in Kosovo for two months where they were dispersed among village houses and became increasingly anxious about Nato air attacks. When the deserters' convoy approached Krusevac last Wednesday it was met by General Nebosja Pavkovic, commander of the Third Army Corps based in Nis. General Pavkovic is said to have told the men that no action would be taken against them and they could return home if they surrendered their weapons.

Later, the general reportedly promised the parents of other servicemen in Kosovo that their sons would soon be coming home.

Since then, the authorities have apparently been considering how best to respond to this serious act of indiscipline which could lead to widespread disaffection in other sections of the armed forces. Some military officers are said to have advised that the deserters should not be sent back to Kosovo for fear of contaminating the morale of other units that have remained at their posts. But if yesterday's reports of a new announcement instructing the men to return are confirmed, it would seem that the Belgrade authorities believe that turning a blind eye to desertion would be even more dangerous.