War in the Balkans: Serbs cross border to kill refugees

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The Independent Online
SERBIA HAS deployed paramilitary death squads into neighbouring Montenegro to hunt down and kill Albanians who have fled there from the terror in Kosovo. One month into the alliance air campaign there are signs that Serbia is moving fast to tighten its stranglehold on Yugoslavia's rebellious junior republic.

At least six Albanian refugees who thought they had found some security in border villages inside the republic were killed this week by "unidentified uniformed police" who crossed over from Serbia and shot them.

The government of the pro-Western republic, which with Serbia forms Federal Yugoslavia but opposes Presidsent Slobodan Milosevic, yesterday sent the deputy prime minister to investigate the killings.

"This is evidently a war crime, a crime against humanity," Dragisa Burzan said on reaching the alleged massacre site at Rozaje, near the border with Kosovo. Mr Burzan said he would insist that Serbia handed over the troops responsible for trial in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.

The outburst against Yugoslav federal forces was unprecedented but there is scant chance of Belgrade taking any notice. The 700,000 inhabitants of Montenegro are virtually powerless to stop 9-million-strong Serbia from taking over their tiny coastal republic.

The Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti said a woman aged 70 and a 13-year- old boy were among the six victims killed near Rozaje but refugees and local residents told the newspaper they believed the Serbs troops had killed many more people. They added that the Yugoslav army had brought heavy artillery into the area.

They also said Serb police and soldiers - in flagrant violation of Montenegro's sovereignty - were ethnically cleansing a whole string of villages on the Montenegrin border with Kosovo.

"The government will discuss the issue today," the Social Affairs Minister, Predrag Drecun, said in Podgorica. "Montenegro did not participate in the creation of this war and I do not believe any Montenegrin wants violence here."

The republic's pro-Western government, led by Milo Djukanovic, has already exhausted Belgrade's patience by obstinately refusing to denounce Nato's bombing campaign, and by giving refuge to at least 60,000 Albanians whom the Serbs had driven out of Kosovo.

Yesterday the Yugoslav army seized control of Montenegro's land border with Croatia and closed the frontier crossing. At the same time, several hundred Serbian soldiers were reported to have poured into the UN-patrolled demilitarised zone between Croatia and Montenegro, prompting Zagreb to lodge an official complaint to the UN Security Council.

Croatian sources said the country might respond to the Yugoslav army intrusion by moving its own forces into the demilitarised zone as well. That could trigger a worse nightmare for Nato - renewed fighting between Croatia and Yugoslavia, who went to war in 1991 after Croatia declared its independence.

The Podgorica government also said Belgrade had confronted it yesterday with a demand for control over Montenegro's police force to be handed over to the Yugoslav army. That would effectively end Montenegro's autonomy within Yugoslavia as well as striking terror into the hearts of the Albanian refugees in the republic, who have so far been shielded by the Montenegrin police from Serbian ethnic cleansing.

Tension in Podgorica is already so high that the government of Mr Djukanovic has stationed police marksmen on the roof tops of government buildings and the local television station, to protect them in the event of a coup staged by the Yugoslav army.

But if Mr Milosevic does stage a military coup against Montenegro the key figure is already in place. At the beginning of the conflict with Nato, the Yugoslav President replaced Radoslav Martinovic as commander of the 2nd Army in Montenegro with Milorad Obradovic, a strong Serb nationalist known to be loyal to Belgrade.

While Serbia certainly has the physical power to extinguish resistance in Montenegro and install a more obedient government, a coup would certainly -in the long term - strengthen pro-independence feeling in the republic, which has been on the rise for several years.

Montenegrins have a proud tradition of resisting outside invaders that dates back to the long centuries when their tiny state, whose name means "Black Mountain", held out against the Ottoman empire. In 1918 the country was fiercely divided into two factions, known as the greens and the whites, over plans to merge their kingdom with Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to form the new state of Yugoslavia. Many were never reconciled to the forced exile of their royal family and the loss of their independence. Today their political descendants are bitter about the way that Serbia's confrontational policies have ruined their hopes of forging closer ties to the West.

But a coup against Montenegro would stun public opinion in Serbia, too. The Serbs see the Montenegrins as family, and as fellow members of the Serbian Orthodox Church, all in all as very different from Catholic Croats, or Muslim Bosnians and Albanians. Most would be traumatised to see Serbs fighting the one nation that they thought they could count on in a crisis.