Last Friday, Customs and Excise agents cautioned the importer of Serbian newspapers, such as Borba and Politika, as well as the independent opposition weekly Vreme, that the publications were being illegally brought into the country. Several hundred copies were reported to have been confiscated from newsagents in central London.
Officials from Customs and Excise and the Department of Trade and Industry said the importation of newspapers from Serbia supported trade with Yugoslavia and must be banned in accordance with the UN-sponsored sanctions on Serbia for its role in the Bosnian war.
Ethnic Serbs living in Britain reacted to the extension of the sanctions to newspapers with outrage. 'Its ridiculous. CNN and Sky News are available all over Serbia. Serbs don't jam the BBC World Service, but we can't get our newspapers,' said Misa Gavrilovic, a spokesman for the Serbian Information Centre, an informal organisation formed to combat 'anti-Serb propaganda'.
'We are amazed that a country such as Britain, which has for decades made big noises about press freedom and the free flow of information, could have sunk so low as to make it impossible for newspapers to reach their audience. It's beyond Stalinism,' he added.
Some newsagents which used to stock Serbo-Croat titles now fear being caught in a mini-Balkan newspaper war and say they will no longer sell any publications from the former Yugoslavia, even legally imported magazines and newspapers from Croatia and Slovenia.
When asked why it took more than 18 months to extend the sanctions to include newspapers, one Customs and Excise official said: 'I suppose it missed our attention. We've been concentating on important items like weapons. The problem is sanctions are notoriously dificult and the only way really to make them work is to make them as comprehensive as possible.'
Serbia has been reeling under the impact of sanctions that have wrecked its economy and threaten further misery this winter. There is a severe shortage of both food and fuel.
The likelihood of the embargo being relaxed soon was diminished yesterday when senior officials from the European Union meeting in Brussels agreed on a new peace plan for Bosnia, but toned down an offer to lift the sanctions on Serbs if they gave Bosnian Muslims more land.
France and Germany proposed earlier this month that sanctions against Belgrade should be progressively lifted if the Muslims get more land as part of a peace deal. The United States, however, has opposed that idea, saying it would reward what Washington sees as Serb aggression.Reuse content