Washington maintains that, despite an international naval blockade, the Serbs are flouting sanctions with impunity and flaunting their ability to do so, trying to get hard cash for a commodity they have in abundance: weapons. Defence industry experts say the Maria's reported cargo underscores Serbia's efforts to restore its weapons manufacturing and export potential.
The former Yugoslavia was once one of the world's pre-eminent arms suppliers, offering sophisticated alternatives to Nato and East Bloc weapons systems. The break-up of Yugoslavia dealt a blow to the industry, which was dispersed throughout the republics. Only 30 to 40 per cent of factories producing military goods remain in rump Yugoslavia. Belgrade's hope, defence experts say, is that re-established arms production within Serbia and Montenegro will attract former customers such as Iraq, Libya and Burma which will be undeterred by Serbia's pariah status.
Paul Beaver, publisher of Jane's Defence Weekly, said the Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement (SDPR) was in charge of a programme to restore weapons manufacturing in Serbia and would do so under a newly restructured state-owned holding company, Jugoimport, which claims to have restarted the development of a new tank. 'SDPR will export to anybody with whom it has a contract which predates sanctions and to anybody who is not a member of the UN. As there is no government in Somalia to speak of, I can see the rationale of how the Serbs would do business there,' said Mr Beaver.
According to Mike Dewar of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Serbia's plan is to convert factories producing civilian goods into plants making military hardware. 'The idea is to convert plants to militarily useful production, not only to meet domestic needs but also for future export.' Recent reports from Belgrade said a factory in Krusevac, central Serbia, had already switched from making construction equipment to production of M-84 battle tanks.
'There is some evidence that the Serbian drive to capture towns in Bosnia was linked to the arms industry. If you correlate towns taken by Serbs with the location of military factories in Bosnia, you would come up with some interesting results,' said Mr Dewar.
There have been further reports that the cornerstone of Serbia's expanded arms industry plans will be the manufacture of new combat planes at the Utva light aircraft factory in Pancevo, near Belgrade, which supposedly has been enhanced by equipment removed from the Mostar Soko aircraft plant in Bosnia. Utva's director said that the remodelled plant was capable of producing new warplanes.
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