War in the Balkans: Strategy - Bombers launch attack on Montenegro capital

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CROWDS OF Montenegrins came on to the streets yesterday to gaze into the thundering sky as Nato planes repeatedly bombed the republic's capital, Podgorica. Plumes of smoke rose close to the city, and anti-aircraft guns opened fire on the planes roaring overhead.

The Nato bombing is presumably intended to hit Slobodan Milosevic's military capability further. But it may prove counter-productive in its effect, driving those who are sharply at odds with the Yugoslav President back into his embrace. The tiny republic of Montenegro - the second republic, with Serbia, in the rump Yugoslav federation - has pursued a reformist course in the past two years.

Nato's Supreme Commander, Wesley Clark, said this week that 10 oil tankers a day have docked at the Montenegrin port of Bar, which now appears to be on Nato's target list. The Montenegrins reject this allegation as "absolutely incorrect". They have become increasingly nervous about the prospect of being bombed as a punishment for Serbia's crimes, and their worst fears now seem to have been realised.

But there are risks for the Nato. Bombing would do serious damage to an already weak economy, and could result in a sense of victimhood that will increase resentment against the West in the only corner of the Yugoslav federation that unreservedly condemns Mr Milosevic's policies in Kosovo.

The Montenegrin President, Milo Djukanovic, has been keen to emphasise that his country is supportive of Nato, and if popular feeling turns strongly against the West, the unseating of Mr Djukanovic will become inevitable. Montenegro could become an unwilling Milosevic ally once more.

In a desperate attempt to appease Nato, the Montenegrin transport minister yesterday offered "open inspection of all documentation" concerning the import and distribution of oil and oil derivatives.

The Montenegrins insist that any oil at Bar - Yugoslavia's only sea port - is for their own purposes only, and that they do not wish to pass the oil and gasoline to the Serbs.

The Yugoslav armed forces have moved in ever-increasing strength to put pressure on the civilian port of Bar. The port authorities were publicly furious when a Yugoslav naval ship fired from the port on Nato planes earlier this month - they argued that this was a provocation that could bring Nato retaliation, including the destruction of the port.

Until now, the Montenegrins had escaped relatively lightly from the bombing campaign. Montenegro's greatest fear has been that the pro-Milosevic Belgrade army is planning a coup against the elected government. The army occupies key positions throughout the country, and has gradually been tightening the screw.

The Montenegrins have beefed up their police and special forces in an attempt to defend the main government buildings from a possible coup. Most Montenegrins believe such a coup would be followed by a civil war, which would lead to secession and the end of Yugoslavia in any shape or form.