Nato countries evacuate nationals from Belgrade: Withdrawal of embassy families carries a clear message after months of empty threats

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The Independent Online
'DON'T worry about all these threats of air strikes,' the wife of an American diplomat in Belgrade said recently. 'They're not serious. When diplomats' families are ordered to leave, then you'll know they're serious. Until that happens it's just talk.'

The person who made that remark was evacuated to Hungary yesterday along with her family and an unspecified number of other American embassy dependants, who had been ordered out of Serbia and Montenegro by Washington because of what it said were 'ongoing conditions in Bosnia'.

If the Bosnian Serbs and Muslims had any lingering doubts about Nato's resolve to back its threat to bomb artillery that was not withdrawn from Sarajevo by next Monday, then - according to the criteria established by the diplomat's wife - they should have been dispelled at the weekend when four alliance countries decided to evacuate their diplomats' families.

Britain led the pull-out when it sent the family members of at least nine British diplomats to Budapest by road on Saturday. The British move - 'advising, not ordering' families to leave - was followed by the clear 'Get out now' command from Washington. The Netherlands joined the evacuation yesterday, and last night Germany issued instructions for its embassy's dependants to leave Belgrade as soon as possible.

''When the British pulled out, we thought 'Why?' But when the Americans followed, we said 'Wait a minute, we have to go to',' a Dutch embassy official in Belgrade said yesterday. 'The fact that we are in the air, on the ground and at sea, was an important factor in our decision,' he added, referring to the prominent Dutch role in United Nations and Nato operations in Bosnia.

Although France is a key player in Nato air-strike plans and has the largest contingent of UN peace- keepers in Bosnia, the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, said yesterday that Paris had no intention of evacuating French nationals from the former Yugoslavia. 'We'll take the necessary precautions at the appropriate time. We have to keep our cool,' said Mr Juppe during a one-day visit to Jordan. However, he added, France would monitor the security situation very closely.

The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said in Geneva at the weekend that his government guaranteed foreigners' safety on its territory but warned that it could lose control of its own people if Nato carried out air strikes.

Officially, the evacuations were billed as a precautionary measure against the possibility of reprisals or a sudden surge in anti-Nato anger in the event of air strikes. At the same time, the withdrawal of embassy families carries a clear message of intent after almost a year of previous empty threat of air-strikes.

'Obviously there is a political signal because the security situation in Serbia has been worse than it is now. It's a political message showing support for the Nato ultimatum,' said one Western diplomat.

The mood caught a few people off guard, not least an American film crew, among them the actor Harvey Keitel. In Belgrade to film scenes for a French-Greek production about life in the Balkans after the Second World War, the actor said they were told by US embassy officials that it would be best for them to finish their project elsewhere. The US State Department on Saturday issued an advisory warning for Americans not to travel in Serbia and Montenegro.

At present there are no obvious tensions in the Serbian capital, but state-run television news exaggerated reports of the diplomatic departure, saying that the United States in particular had closed down its embassy.

American, British and Dutch nationals are considered to be the most vulnerable to reprisal attacks, because their fighter planes could be used in any Nato operation against Bosnian Serbs. 'If the Dutch F-16 is identified as one of the planes dropping bombs, I personally would prefer to have my wife and children out of here,' one Dutch diplomat said.