We must not allow Mr Milosevic to provoke civil war in the Balkans

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The Independent Online

First, the easy part, when assessing the latest gambit of Slobodan Milosevic. Belgrade's decision to press charges against the two British police officers and two Canadians arrested by the Yugoslav army while they were on holiday in Montenegro last week is deplorable. It is doubly deplorable that they have so far been denied proper consular access. British intelligence has its moments of madness - but Yugoslav allegations that the four were on a secret mission to train the Montenegrin police in subversion techniques beggars belief. They should be released immediately.

First, the easy part, when assessing the latest gambit of Slobodan Milosevic. Belgrade's decision to press charges against the two British police officers and two Canadians arrested by the Yugoslav army while they were on holiday in Montenegro last week is deplorable. It is doubly deplorable that they have so far been denied proper consular access. British intelligence has its moments of madness - but Yugoslav allegations that the four were on a secret mission to train the Montenegrin police in subversion techniques beggars belief. They should be released immediately.

Having said that, we then reach the hard part: what to do about it. Despite the protests of the Foreign Office, the Canadian government and the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (to whom the two Britons are on secondment in Kosovo), there was never the slightest doubt that the four would be sent for trial.

For one thing, Slobodan Milosevic could not be expected to pass up the opportunity of needling an enemy who barely a year earlier was sending bombs against his capital. Second, the men are pawns in a far larger and more dangerous game - the intensifying efforts of the Yugoslav President to squash the independent aspirations of Montenegro and its deft and pro-Western leader, Milo Djukanovic.

Mr Milosevic served notice of what he was about last month when he unilaterally changed the constitution and called direct elections for the federal presidency in September. These will in effect make Montenegro, Serbia's sole surviving and much smaller partner in the Yugoslav Federation, an irrelevance. The arrests are designed to show that foreign plotting against Yugoslavia continues and to goad Mr Djukanovic into a rash response that would offer the Yugoslav army a pretext to step in and, as they say in such cases, "restore order".

Even so, many would argue that, beyond doing all in our power to secure the release of our nationals, we should otherwise do nothing. Unlike Bosnia, where war broke out in 1992 and the West belatedly intervened, Montenegro is not an independent, internationally recognised state. There is no ethnic crisis akin to that in Kosovo, which was not even a republic but a mere province of Serbia when Nato went to war in 1999 to halt Serb oppression of the 90 per cent Albanian majority. Montenegrins are ethnically similar to Serbs; a third of them are fervent supporters of Mr Milosevic. This, the non-interventionists argue, is none of our business.

Alas, this is no family quarrel that outsiders may safely ignore. As Paddy Ashdown warned in this newspaper last week, in the Balkans the cost of action has always to be measured against the price of inaction. There have lately been solid gains for decent government in the region, an increasing stability in Bosnia, and Croatia's unequivocal moves toward integration in the West.

To reverse the famous dictum of James Baker, when as Secretary of State he opposed any intervention in one of Milosevic's earlier wars, we do have a dog in this fight. The abandonment of Montenegro's outward-looking and pro-European leadership would hand an immense political victory to Mr Milosevic and postpone sine die any prospect of the Yugoslav leader's removal from power. Far beyond safeguarding the basic rights of two British and two Canadian citizens, we must make clear to him by word and deed that we will tolerate no stirring-up of civil war in Montenegro.

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