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Balkan strife shakes Australia

THE food in the restaurant was strictly Balkan and the waiter was friendly as he talked about his homeland of Yugoslavia. Then, decidedly edgy, he added: 'Don't you dare use my name or this place will be fire-bombed.' The restaurant is in Sydney, half a world away from the Balkan wars of the 1990s and, until recently, a haven for immigrants to Australia from former Yugoslavia. All that has changed.

In the past few weeks, ethnic tensions have erupted in Australian cities, putting the country's immigration programme under the greatest stress in 40 years. The latest attacks have involved Macedonians and Greeks outraged over the government's policy towards the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Since early March, fire-bombs have exploded at a Greek Orthodox church in Sydney and a Greek club in Wollongong, south of the city. In Melbourne, which claims to have the largest Greek population outside Greece, 10 fire- bombs and Molotov cocktails have been hurled at churches, houses and businesses on both sides. In Canberra, the capital, anti-Greek and anti-Macedonian graffiti have appeared.

The 500,000 Australians originating from the former Yugoslavia comprise one of the country's biggest immigrant groups since the Second World War. While the Communist regime kept the lid on ethnic conflicts at home, there were no such constraints in Australia. In the 1960s and 1970s, bombs rocked Yugoslav consulates and airline offices in Sydney and Melbourne. Croats ran terrorist camps in Australia aimed at destabilising Belgrade. But in the past three years, as the Balkan scene became more horrifying, Serbs and Croats called a truce in Australia. Instead, thousands of young men flew back to join the real war.

So when the violence switched last month to Greeks and Macedonians, Australians were dismayed. The powder keg was ignited in February by the decision of Paul Keating's government to recognise the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It did so only after recognition had come from 58 other countries. The key to Canberra's delay was the fear of upsetting Australia's hundreds of thousands of Greeks. They strongly support Greece's claim that Macedonia has usurped Greek symbols on its flag and currency.

As tension mounted, and after strong Greek lobbying, Gareth Evans, Australia's Foreign Minister, announced three weeks ago that government agencies would adopt the term 'Slav Macedonians' for Australians from the new republic. He also criticised what he described as 'offensive irredentist propaganda' from the FYROM. If it was intended as a solution, Mr Evans's 'shorthand' term, as he called the 'Slav Macedonian' label, backfired. Australia's publicly funded ethnic broadcasting service announced it would refuse to use it. And, as Greece's blockade of Macedonia began to bite last week, ethnic leaders warned that the violence in Australia could spread.

Already, some Australian MPs have called for those behind the violence to be sent back to Europe, and others have renewed demands for stricter curbs on the country's immigration policy.