Dirty tricks as Milosevic goes on the offensive

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THE GLOVES are off. President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia first tried the carrot and the stick. He cajoled, prodded and bullied the Bosnian Serb leaders to accept the Vance- Owen peace plan. But they have refused to yield.

Now it appears Mr Milosevic has decided no more Mr Nice Guy. What is emerging in Belgrade is a two- pronged approach of economic sanctions - in the form of a blockade of Bosnia - and dirty tricks, including a smear campaign on the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic. The offensive began at the weekend and hit new lows yesterday. The worst, many fear, is yet to come.

What is motivating Mr Milosevic, according to political insiders, is not a sudden deep desire for peace but realpolitik and his ruthless nature towards those who defy him. International sanctions combined with the possibility of a fully fledged military confrontation have forced him to reconsider his position and to push the Bosnian Serbs to accept Vance-Owen. But the latest twists and turns seem as much linked to his desire for revenge as to political survival.

'Milosevic does not forgive. He has a long, merciless memory and harbours deep resentment against political opponents. That is just his emotional make up,' a senior Western diplomat said.

Since Saturday, a blockade of all but humanitarian assistance appeard to be in full force along Serbia's border with the self-styled Bosnian Serb republic. Witnesses at different crossing points on the Drina river, which separates Serbia from Bosnia, have reported that police loyal to Mr Milosevic have been turning back scores of lorries carrying everything from petrol to pigs. On Sunday the blockade was apparently extended to include Bosnian Serb leaders

In what has brought amusement to many in Belgrade, the Bosnian Serb Vice-President, Biljana Plavsic, appeared on television yesterday hopping mad. She claimed police denied her entry to Serbia on Sunday and handed her a notice saying all Bosnian Serb leaders, ministers and members of their 'parliament' were barred from rump Yugoslavia.

A few hours later, the official news agency Tanjug quoted federal police officials as saying they knew nothing about a ban against Bosnian Serb leaders and had no information of the incident refered to by Ms Plavsic. But the Bosnian Serb Leader, Radovan Karadzic, insisted that a ban really did exist. 'We are very sad about that decision of Yugoslavia. We know that they are squeezed and blackmailed but still this is too much,' Mr Karadzic said yesterday.

Adding insult to injury has been the sudden plethora of news stories in local newspapers attacking the alleged excesses of Bosnian Serb leaders, especially Mr Karadzic and his family. Yesterday the independent daily Borba said Mr Karadzic's son, Sasa, was supposed to have told a helicopter pilot who would not kick injured soldiers off an aircraft so he could travel with his dog to Belgrade: 'My dog is worthier than 10 of your pilots or even your head.' It then went on to refer to unsubstantiated rumours that while his people live in misery in Bosnia, Mr Karadzic lost DM300,000 ( pounds 125,000) in one night gambling in Belgrade. In the article, which was billed as the first of a series, Ms Plavsic said insults against her and her government were being organised by Serbian officials.

Diplomats say the smears are probably just the beginning of a campaign that will end in more sweeping and drastic arm-twisting measures to force the Bosnian Serbs to heel.

According to sources inside the Serbian Red Cross, the Serbian government is considering moves against the 200,000 Bosnian Serb refugees in Yugoslavia. They said the government was drafting a law revoking refugee status from Bosnian Serbs from towns and villages under Serbian control. They would lose privileges such as free transport, food and medicine.

'Milosevic appears to be trying to cultivate and exploit resentment of Serbs in Serbia towards the Serbs in Bosnia. It is not without risk though and could backfire on him if he is not careful,' a European diplomat said.