Greece steps up dispute with Macedonia by closing port

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The Independent Online
GREECE injected fresh tensions into the conflict-ridden Balkans yesterday by banning the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia from using the Greek port of Salonika except for shipments of humanitarian aid, writes Tony Barber. The Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, also said that Greece was closing its consulate in Skopje, the republic's capital.

The measures are the most severe that Greece has taken against its northern neighbour in their three-year quarrel over whether the republic, an independent state since the collapse of Yugoslavia, has the right to call itself Macedonia. Greece argues that the use of the name implies a claim on the northern Greek province of Macedonia, of which Salonika is the capital.

The ban on access to Salonika is potentially devastating for the new country, which is landlocked and depends on the port for oil deliveries. Greek officials have hinted that they may take even stronger action, such as closing the Greek-Macedonian state border. They want the new country to change its name, amend its constitution to rule out territorial expansion and stop using state emblems, notably the 16-pointed Star of Vergina, that Greece says are part of its ancient heritage.

Mr Papandreou's unexpectedly tough step could hardly have come at a more delicate moment for Greece's Western allies, which are only four days away from potential air attacks on Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo. Preoccupied with the Bosnian war, the US and its main Western allies had hoped that the Macedonian issue would die a quiet death after the United Nations admitted the country under the temporary name of 'the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia'.

Mr Papandreou's Socialist government has emulated its conservative predecessor, which fell from power last October, in expressing strong criticism of Western policy in the Balkans. Greece has made great efforts to keep lines of diplomatic communication open with Serbia, and the Foreign Minister, Karolos Papoulias, visited Belgrade this week in an attempt to avert a Nato attack on the Bosnian Serbs.

He said yesterday that Greece, the current president of the European Union, might call an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers before Nato's deadline for the removal of Serbian heavy weaponry around Sarajevo expires at midnight on Sunday. Warning that Nato could accidentally trigger war across the whole Balkans, he said: 'There is a possible danger, if not an immediate one, that (the conflict) will spread.'

One of Greece's biggest concerns is the regional role of Turkey, its Nato ally but traditional foe. Turkey has cultivated close relations with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and is a loud advocate of air attacks on the Bosnian Serbs. Turkey has sent fighter planes to Italy to join in Nato's operations over Bosnia, but they had to fly around the Mediterranean because Greece barred them from its air space.

Since coming to power, Mr Papandreou has also given a higher profile to the issue of Cyprus, where Turkish troops occupied the northern half of the island in 1974. His government has held talks with Greek Cypriot leaders on forming a common 'defence space' and is pressing the case for Cyprus' admission into the EU.