Diehards mount stand on a bridge too far

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THE Drina River flows peacefully through some of the most hauntingly beautiful terrain of what used to be Yugoslavia. It forms a natural border between the flatness of Serbia and the mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina - or, as 70 per cent of the area is now styled, the Bosnian Serb Republic.

The hills above the Drina saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Second World War. Most famous was the battle of Sutjeska in 1943, in which almost the entire Partisan army managed to escape 120,000 encircling Nazi troops, but not before losing 7,300 fighters. Fifty years later, those hills are the scene of the worst bloodshed in Europe since the war. But this time the struggle is among neighbours: Serbs, Muslims and Croats.

With Nato aircraft enforcing a UN 'no-fly zone' over Bosnia, the lifeline that sustains the Serbian war machine is the bridges that span the Drina, from Trebinje in the south to a rickety rail bridge near Bijeljina in the north.

Of all the crossing-points, however, perhaps the most important is the modern bridge that connects Mali Zvornik in Serbia to Zvornik in Bosnia. From here lorries and vans carrying fuel, munitions or food, skirt pockets of Muslim resistance and toil up the Jahorina mountain to Pale, self-declared capital of the BSR.

If Western leaders decide to punish the Serbs for their rejection of an international peace plan for Bosnia, these bridges, especially the one at Zvornik, would be prime targets for their planes. An opinion poll in the independent daily Borba on Friday said 40 per cent of 300 Serbs questioned thought air attacks were imminent.

But as of yesterday, apart from one unmanned anti-aircraft gun only partly concealed under camouflage netting on the Serbian side of Loznica bridge, there was no evidence of any official worry about foreign attacks.

Soldiers at the Zvornik bridge laughed when asked if they had made any preparations for air strikes by the West. 'No chance. Not even the children are scared of that,' a Serbian border policeman said.

Perhaps they are confident that the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, sharply reduced that possibility when his government announced last week that Mother Serbia was cutting the umbilical cord of its nationalist foundlings in Bosnia.

Mr Milosevic, squeezed by tighter economic sanctions and afraid of being dragged into a full-fledged military confrontation with the West, has been urging, even pleading with, his client warlords to accept the plan. When the Bosnian Serbs chose to bite the hand that fed them, Mr Milosevic hit back. Belgrade announced a blockade of Bosnia and the suspension of all but humanitarian aid.

Yesterday officials received instructions from Belgrade outlining what could or could not cross the border. Traffic at the Zvornik bridge was sparse and some tankers were only allowed into Bosnia if they were empty. Foot patrols were stationed around some crossing points. Mr Milosevic's intention to impose a blockade was praised by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, the authors of the UN peace plan, and received a guarded welcome from the US President, Bill Clinton. But there are real doubts whether the blockade will make any difference to the Bosnian Serbs, who are mostly rural people used to getting by on very little. The most important supply the blockade would affect is petrol, the only real dependency that Bosnian Serbs have on Serbia proper. And as far as that goes, there are those willing to help.

Drinking coffee with friends at a roadside cafe in Mali Zvornik yesterday, the local garage owner, Milomar Yevdic, said proudly that he would defy any government ban. 'People here will help because they are our neighbours and relatives. Those blood ties mean that we will help them secretly.'

His promise of support was more symbolic than real, though. International sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro give rump Yugoslavia fuel problems of its own, as even Mr Yevdic acknowledges. 'Of course, we cannot give what we ourselves don't have,' he said.

None the less, the move has angered Bosnian Serbs, who feel that they have been misunderstood by the world and betrayed by the very men who first encouraged what they see as their struggle for self-determination. 'So, Serbia has turned its back on us too. It doesn't matter. They never gave us anything anyway. We don't need anybody,' said a Bosnian Serb soldier watching the traffic cross Zvornik bridge. 'Let the American planes come.'