Belgrade Mulls Cruise Missile Strikes

By Vesna Peric-Zimonjic Oct 1998

BELGRADE, Oct 7 (IPS) For your information: (by IPS, independent news agency)

- In Serbian eyes there is now a very real prospect of U.S.-led NATO air strikes on their country -- a prospect that engenders equally real fear and anger among the general populace.

These fears are focused on the words of U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, in town this week to meet with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for talks on the Kosovo crisis.

Holbrooke -- who brought a Pax Americana to Bosnia Hercegovina, agreed in the U.S. city of Dayton, but facilitated by major NATO air strikes on Bosnian Serb positions -- described his unsuccessful Tuesday meeting with Milosevic as ''chillier (than usual) but civil''.

But he told Belgrade journalists that the situation was ''the most difficult and serious'' he had faced so far in the Balkans.

The seven-month crisis in the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo has been brought to a new head by widespread western media reports of Serbian atrocities against the ethnic Albanian communities that predominate in the province.

Once again punitive NATO air strikes are being openly discussed, though U.N. hesitation and Russian opposition qualify quick decision making. The latest U.N. Security Council resolution on the Balkans urges Belgrade to withdraw its forces from Kosovo and that negotiations with Kosovo Albanians be started immediately.

Both houses of the federal Parliament of Yugoslavia met on Monday, concluding that the country faces an ''imminent danger of war,'' while the federation's Supreme Defence Council, headed by Milosevic, warned the country to be ''ready to defend itself'' on Sunday.

And while the state controlled media says that any NATO air strikes would target military installations, the independent media runs lists of likely targets across Serbia -- military installations, Yugoslav Army air bases and anti-aircraft rocket sites - near large civilian populations.

Publicly, the military dismiss fears of 'collateral damage' and destruction caused by mis-aimed U.S. missiles or bad NATO intelligence. They maintain that their air defence can handle the threat.

Privately, most concede that the army's outdated equipment will be no more use against NATO might in Serbia than it was in Bosnia- Hercegovina and that the bombers will get through.

''There is no way they (NATO planes) could hit the military without touching us,'' says Belgrade engineer Milan Simonovic. ''It's only the tell-tale when they (NATO) talk about 'surgical strikes'. Such hits are only possible with computer games.''

''There is no place I can hide with my kids,'' says Marina Ivkovic, an unemployed mother of two, walking her son and daughter aged five and three in a Belgrade park.

''I live in an eight-storey apartment building. The cellar is a possible hiding place. But how can I run with two of them to the cellar quickly enough? They (the government) are not telling us anything except that we have to defend ourselves, our country. How and why?'' she adds.

The Cold War era bomb shelters that were built into suburban apartment blocks -- though not into the older homes in the densely populated city centres -- have long ago been turned over to other uses. Today they are junk rooms, discos and gymnasiums. The state has no new advice on what to do when the bombs fall.

The media advise their readers to box flashlights, transistor radios, tinned food and bottled water, ready for a fast move into the cellar, if the reader has one. They also advise them to bag up their family documents and take them underground as well. Grimly, at least two journalists who lost homes in Bosnia and Croatia, advise their readers to collect old photos as well.

''You have to know who you are, that you are a person with the past, that you once led a normal life,'' one wrote. ''That is why photographs are necessary. Take the word of those who failed to do that once before, as they have bitter experience.''

''Civilians should be psychologically prepared for possible air strikes,'' adds Bora Kuzmanovic, professor of the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy.

''The increasing threats only stir up mixed feelings of revolt and anger, growing patriotism and national unity. They make ordinary people feel powerless and victimised, and bitter and furious against the outside world,'' Kuzmanovic explains.

Konstantin Obradovic, an international law expert of the Institute for International Politics and Economy, said the government was doing nothing because ''at heart, they do not believe NATO could resort to strikes''.

But retired artillery colonel Milorad Timotic of the non- governmental Belgrade Centre for Civil and Military Relations said the government had already raised army combat readiness and issued instructions to local authorities. Both the military and the local authorities refuse to comment.

''If anyone wants to punish Milosevic for Kosovo or whatever, it still remains unclear what they would accomplish by bombing targets all over Serbia,'' Zoran Milanovic, a Belgrade teacher says. ''It will only help this regime rally people behind it.'' He thought it would rally ethnic Albanian supporters of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) as well.

In Belgrade and elsewhere there is no mass rush to buy food stockpiles; few people have the money to do so. ''Milosevic and his family won't feel a thing. They'll be safe in their bunkers,'' Milanovic added. ''Look what (the 1992-95 U.N.) sanctions did to him. People around him and his family became enormously rich, while we have never been poorer.''

''Will bombs get the (Kosovo) refugees more aid, new houses?'' asks Milos Janjic, a Belgrade student. ''If air strikes could happen without human casualties and if that could bring Milosevic's rule to an end, I would not mind. Tell them to bomb Milosevic's home in Dedinje (a Belgrade residential area)-- and save us from further trouble.'' (END/IPS/VPZ/RJ/98)

Jan Van Criekinge
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