The 350 tons of fuel donated by the EU to Nis, the Yugoslav Republic's third-largest city, 235km (145 miles) south-east of Belgrade, were unloaded yesterday on a rare sunny day. One-third of the population of Nis, 75,000 people, had been without central heating for two days. The lorries had been stranded at the Yugoslav-Macedonian border since 24 November while Yugoslav customs kept raising new administrative obstacles, attracting the EU's censure.
Zoran Zivkovic, the mayor of Nis, said: "Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what changed their mind." He suggested that Belgrade's "inexplicable logic" meant that the Serbian authorities moved only "when it is too late or when grave consequences can be felt".
Mr Zivkovic said that Pirot, a town further south, was in an even more dire situation than Nis, as central heating had been cut off in parts of it for two weeks. The shipment to the two opposition-governed cities is part of the EU's Fuel for Democracy aid programme, devised after the end of the Kosovo air campaign.
Nis dipped into the Yugoslav Republic's so-called strategic reserves of heating fuel, which amount to about 2,000 tons, to help its residents with central heating to survive sub-zero temperatures while awaiting the EU delivery.
The head of the fuel plant was arrested and spent several days in prison until he was released after public demonstrations in Trg Pobede square, in the town centre. Using the republic's strategic reserves without the Serbian leadership's approval is against the law. Mr Zivkovic said they had no alternative.
Aleksandr Krstic, the deputy head of the local government, said that Belgrade's blockage of the EU convoy was "definitely political". Nis and Pirot are two of 15 Serbian towns and cities (representing almost half of the republic's 7.8 million population) run by the opposition. The elected officials are eager to present an alternative to the autocratic regime of President Slobodan Milosevic. The ruling coalition of Serbia is made up of Mr Milosevic's Socialists, the JUL of his wife, Mira Markovic, and the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj.
"We know that this is a symbolic amount of heating fuel for the time being," Mr Krstic said. "But it is important to know that this is just the beginning, and that Nis and Pirot are soon expecting the rest of 25,000 tons of fuel to keep the heating on during the winter." He said the EU's message to Nis was: "Europe does make a clear distinction between the ostracised regime of Serbia and the ordinary people who live here."
Analysts and local government officials said Belgrade hoped the lack of heating fuel would make residents turn to electric heaters, thereby causing the collapse of the electricity power supply system, hit by the Nato bombing. That would mean bakeries and milk production stopping, schools closing and public dissatisfaction. In such a situation, the argument goes, the Serbian central government would proclaim the Nis authorities incompetent and introduce direct rule.
"Luckily for us, the plan will not work," Milan, an engineer in Nis, said. "We are glad that the town did what was necessary for us, as we elected those people. We don't care much what Belgrade says."
A middle-aged woman who gave her name as Ljiljana said: "Frankly, people don't care if it was the EU who gave us the fuel or someone else. The main thing is having a warm home."
The Montenegrin Foreign Minister, Branko Perovic, is to be tried by a Naples court on charges of involvement in an international cigarette smuggling ring while an employee of the Yugoslav airline Jat, in Rome. The trial date is set for November 2000.