War in the Balkans: Yugoslav Dissent - Serbia sends more troops into jittery Montenegro

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The Independent Online
BELGRADE BEGAN pouring troops into Montenegro yesterday - a move that Yugoslavia's rebellious junior republic sees as an attempt to topple the government, which is sharply at odds with Slobodan Milosevic. Yesterday's turn of the screw may prove to be the prologue to a bloody coup.

Some 1,500 troops were deployed in Montenegro yesterday. Five hundred reservists arrived in Bar, Yugoslavia's only seaport and the main conduit for oil imports. Another thousand were reported to have been sent to other parts of Montenegro, including the border area that was occupied by federal troops earlier this month.

A pro-government news service said the troops were being sent into Montenegro "with the express purpose of causing incidents in order to destabilise the government". Montenegro is run by liberals who fiercely oppose President Milosevic's isolationism and his ethnic cleansing policies. They want closer ties with the West.

According to the agency Montenegro News, the move to deploy troops was triggered by the fact that Yugoslav Army officers - including, presumably, Montenegrins - were defying Belgrade by refusing to stoke up tension between the army and the Montenegrin police.

The latest escalation of hostilities between Serbia and Montenegro is partly connected with Nato's proposal to turn off Belgrade's oil tap with an embargo. Montenegrin government officials say they have at least two months' stocks of oil in the port of Bar for civilian use; it is determined not to pass this oil to the Belgrade military.

Dejan Vucicevic, an MP from Bar, warned of the catastrophic effect that federal troops seizing control of the port's facilities would have. "They could try to take oil by force. That would be the beginning of a civil war."

This might suit Mr Milosevic, who has traditionally thrived on conflict in every corner of the former Yugoslavia. But not everybody in Serbia is keen on such confrontation.

The authorities in Cacak, south of Belgrade, organised a demonstration that called for Serb reservists "not to contribute" to the destabilisation of Montenegro, by taking part in actions against the government of President Milo Djukanovic. Officially, Serb troops are coming to help Montenegro defend itself against Nato attack. But Montenegrin officials publicly dismiss the idea that Nato ground troops might enter Yugoslavia through the republic. Whatever the military pros and cons of such a plan, the political effect would undoubtedly be disastrous.

Montenegro is doing everything to keep its distance from the war between Nato and Belgrade. The air raid sirens wail daily as the Nato planes fly overhead, en route to their Serb targets. But the Montenegrins are eager that the army should not fire at the planes, thus persuading Nato to unleash its bombs.

A burst of anti-aircraft fire in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, on Sunday night, was described by one Montenegrin as an "army provocation".

Above all, the Montenegrins are worried about the possible bombing of Bar, which plays a key role in the country's economy. When a Yugoslav navy ship in Bar, fired on Nato planes, there were officially sponsored protests in the town because of what was seen as a revenge bombing. Nato hit Montenegro in the early days of the campaign, but now appears to have realised the political absurdity of such a strategy.

While attempting to remain on polite terms with the military, Montenegro does nothing to hide its fear of a takeover. The streets of Podgorica are lined with armed police and special forces protecting government buildings. The Yugoslav Army takes every opportunity to intimidate; in recent days, soldiers delivered call-up papers to the deputy mayor of Bar, Mico Orlandic, and other council officials. The council's response was to post armed men at the doors of the town hall. "They're there to defend us," said Mr Orlandic.

Milka Tadic, the editor and publisher of Monitor, Montenegro's main news magazine, said secession is now inevitable. "A big Yugoslavia was a normal country before Milosevic came. But the rump Yugoslavia we have now is an illusion. Secession is the only way to save Montenegro from the madness."