Montenegrin War Games

Fear is mounting in Montenegro that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic could mount military operations against the republic, the smaller partner in the Yugoslav federation, as early as this autumn.

Montenegrin War Games

Fear is mounting in Montenegro that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic could mount military operations against the republic, the smaller partner in the Yugoslav federation, as early as this autumn.

With federal elections just over a month away, the Belgrade regime's media campaign against Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and his closest associates is becoming ever more excessive. Accusations of treason and conspiring with foreign powers to damage the sovereignty of the Yugoslav federation feature regularly in the pro-Milosevic media.

As if to add credence to the allegations eight foreign nationals were recently arrested by the Yugoslav Army, VJ, in Montenegro and charged with spying. Meanwhile confrontations between the VJ and the Montenegrin police have become an almost daily occurrence.

On July 31 four Dutchmen were arrested on the Serbian-Montenegrin border. Yugoslav Federal Information Minister Goran Matic announced the arrests the following day at a press conference in Belgrade. Matic said the men were to be charged as spies and terrorists, and that their activities were linked to the Montenegrin authorities.

On August 3 the VJ 2nd Army's information service confirmed four "spies and terrorists" - two Britons and two Canadians - had also been detained on July 31 at Cakor on the Montenegrin-Kosovo border.

"There are indications that they were training the members of the Montenegrin MUP [Ministry of Interior]," the information service said.

A senior official from the Montenegrin police told IWPR that he is certain his people had nothing to do with "such amateurs and adventurers."

The British and Canadian governments dismiss the allegations, claiming the men were on a weekend break to Montenegro.

The Yugoslav military, meanwhile, branded the Montenegrin Interior Ministry police a criminal organisation linked to the Italian mafia, various terrorist groups and foreign intelligence services. Montenegrin Minister of Interior Affairs Vukasin Maras retaliated accusing the VJ of "serious professional and political mistakes."

The arrested Britons and Canadians, employees of the OSCE and humanitarian organisations in Kosovo, were transferred to Podgorica on August 7 to appear before a military court. An indictment was subsequently issued and the men moved on to Belgrade.

Security reasons are thought to have prompted the men's transfer to Belgrade. There is no military prison in Montenegro and only last year Croatian journalist Antun Masle, also arrested by the VJ and accused of espionage, escaped from the civilian prison at Spuz, just outside Podgorica.

The OSCE office in Pristina has now prohibited its officials from holidaying in Montenegro. Ljubljana has also warned the Slovenians currently in Montenegro to avoid border areas and all military-related sites.

The Milosevic regime has frequently accused the Montenegrin government of employing foreign instructors to train special units loyal to Djukanovic. And as yet no categorical denial has been forthcoming from the Montenegrin authorities.

According to reports in the British Sunday Times and Independent newspapers members of the British Special Air Service, SAS, were operating in the republic around six months ago to "protect and evacuate British citizens in case of unrest."

An official who works for the Montenegro security services said, however, no SAS members were in the country at the moment. But he did not rule out the possibility such people had operated in the country in the past or could return in the future.

"The special units of the Montenegrin police also include formations trained in anti-terrorist and anti-sabotage tasks. The VJ has refused to co-operate with us for years in the training of such people," the source said. "I do not therefore rule out the possibility that foreign instructors capable of carrying out such training were hired."

In late July the pro-Milosevic Belgrade daily Politika claimed Croatian instructors were working in Montenegro. The report alleged the men were members of the Croatian MUP and veterans of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. The instructors, Politika claimed, arrived in mid-July "to carry out intensive training among the ever increasing numbers of armed, regular Montenegrin police, many of whom have criminal dossiers."

Newspaper headlines in Belgrade have also pointed the finger at the United States. But no evidence has been offered to back-up the claims.

Against this tense backdrop confrontations between the VJ and the Montenegrin MUP have escalated over recent weeks.

On August 5 the Yugoslav navy searched and then tried to seize the Croatian cargo vessel Dea. The ship was empty and en route to the Bijela yard for repairs. Members of the Montenegrin MUP prevented the seizure by boarding the vessel. The MUP officers remained on board until the Yugoslav military finally agreed to allow the vessel to continue its journey to Bijela.

For over a month VJ troops have been blocking border crossings between Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina at Niksic and Trebinje. Even during the worst fighting of the Bosnian wars traffic flowed freely across this frontier. The situation is similar along the Montenegrin-Albanian border.

Meanwhile on August 8 Yugoslav military police at the port of Bar opened fire on a truck belonging to a local carrier at a checkpoint near the town. Two bullets hit the driver's cab but he managed to escape unhurt and drive his vehicle, with punctured tyres, to a police station five kilometres away.

In early June the Yugoslav military police arrested a VJ officer on charges of spying for the Montenegrin authorities and the local media. The officer, a Muslim by nationality, is now in Belgrade awaiting trial.

At the same time in northern Montenegro troops from the 7th Battalion of the military police despatched a tank into Bijelo Polje to "inspect" the town centre's cafes and restaurants. Meanwhile their colleagues in Berane, dressed in full combat gear, surrounded the local police station demanding the release of one of their number arrested the previous evening after a drunken brawl.

Around 15,000 troops from the Yugoslav 2nd Army and the 7th Battalion are stationed in Montenegro. They face an almost equal force of Montenegrin police loyal to Djukanovic. The fear of conflict escalated after Milosevic succeeded in altering the federation's constitution to improve his chances of victory in presidential and federal elections, now scheduled for September 24.

Montenegro's position in the federation was marginalized by the constitutional changes, prompting the Montenegrin leadership to boycott the elections despite mounting pressure from the international community and the Serbian opposition to take part. The road to secession, and conflict, appears one-way.

NATO members discussed the possibility of conflict at a meeting last week. But the Alliance still lacks a clear plan of action should fighting erupt this autumn.

Zoran Radulovic is journalist of independent weekly Monitor in Podgorica

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