Montenegro puts on a show of power

Snipers in the pro-Western republic's police are training to take on the Yugoslav army, widely seen as an occupying force
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The Independent Online

Snipers in the Yugoslavian republic of Montenegro are being trained to target senior officers of the Yugoslavian federal army if Belgrade launches a war in the republic. The secret training programme for marksmen suggests that a war between pro-Milosevic forces and the pro-Western government of Montenegro is more likely than ever.

One Montenegrin sniper, "Ivica", told the Independent on Sunday that the files on the senior officers in Milosevic's army in Montenegro have been handed out for him and his fellow snipers to study: "All of them are assigned." Ivica, whom I first met during the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia last year, said that he and his comrades had sometimes come within a few metres of the Yugoslavian forces - seen by some Montenegrins as an occupying force - whom they had been dispatched to mark. "The situation was tense. One bullet - fired by them or by us - would have been enough to start a war."

The Montenegrin government has repeatedly insisted that it is determined not to provoke war. Nonetheless, in an interview with the Independent on Sunday, President Milo Djukanovic warned that the omens were not good: "Milosevic has produced four wars in Yugoslavia. We must brace for the worst-case scenario, which is what Montenegro is used to." The snipers are members of an élite team which is theoretically part of the 20,000-strong police force; in practice, they could form the core of an independent Montenegrin army.

Despite Montenegro's attempts to sound conciliatory, both sides are gearing up for a potential war. Milosevic has purged the Yugoslavian military leadership of any officers who might be sympathetic to the Montenegrin cause. For his part, President Djukanovic - himself a former Milosevic ally - has recruited three former Yugoslavian army generals as advisers to the pro-Western Montenegrin government. According to one report, Milosevic was "so furious [at the generals' defection] that a medical team had to intervene".

The previously cautious Mr Djukanovic is increasingly outspoken about the need for Montenegro to go its own way. He calls the Yugoslavian parliament "illegal and illegitimate". He described a Yugoslavian unit in the north of Montenegro as "a paramilitary unit", and said: "It's just what Milosevic did in Bosnia and Croatia. He's recruiting from the ranks of his own supporters - his own partisan army."

Mr Djukanovic insisted that Montenegro was ready to fight back, if necessary - and that it would win, despite its tiny size. "If it came to it, Montenegrin special forces would succeed in defending our statehood and freedom." He suggested that the conflict in Montenegro would not be along ethnic lines, as in Bosnia or Croatia, but would be "a question of civilisation". He argued: "A minority remain slaves to false history. They regard everything from outside Serbia and Montenegro as hostile. These people are easily manipulated by Milosevic's lies."

Local elections in June will be a trial of strength between Mr Djukanovic's party and the pro-Milosevic opposition, and tensions look set to rise. The commander of the Montenegrin special forces says that Yugoslavian forces are "constantly trying to provoke incidents in Montenegro".

Belgrade insists that its intentions in Montenegro are innocent. Nebojsa Pavkovic, the army chief, last week blamed Nato for all the trouble: "They do not hesitate to make threats with naked military force and blows from a distance." Mr Djukanovic, now so eager to align himself with the West, has changed his politics radically. He was prime minister when Montenegrin forces shelled the Croatian port of Dubrovnik in 1991. Until now, he has seemed reluctant to distance himself from that action. Speaking to the Independent on Sunday, he described the bombardment for the first time as "a tragic mistake", which "does no credit to Montenegro".