Serbia Tightens Montenegrin Noose

The deployment of Yugoslav army troops on Montenegro's frontiers has tightened Belgrade's stranglehold over the tiny republic.

Serbia Tightens Montenegrin Noose

The deployment of Yugoslav army troops on Montenegro's frontiers has tightened Belgrade's stranglehold over the tiny republic.

Yugoslav Army forces in Montenegro are reported to have seized control of border crossings with Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, heightening tensions between Belgrade and Podgorica.

The escalation in the long-standing dispute between the two republics comes as the Yugoslav Army reinforces its units in the republic. "The appropriate Montenegrin response to Belgrade's steps could lead to serious conflict," a western diplomat warned.

Montenegro, Serbia's partner in the Yugoslav federation, has been edging away from Belgrade for several years. With the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic ruling out equal status between the republics, Podgorica has taken steps towards independence.

While Belgrade maintains control of federal forces there, the Montenegrin administration of President Milo Djukanovic has built up an increasingly strong police force, taken over responsibility for foreign relations, the economy and even the currency.

Milosevic's preoccupation with other problems such as Kosovo have so far helped Djukanovic steer clear of open conflict. That may no longer be possible. Armed soldiers from the Yugoslav Second Army have now been posted near the Albanian border crossing at Bozaj, controlling traffic, checking documents - and instilling considerable fear in the local, mainly Albanian, population.

"This is a regular traffic control of vehicles and people, entering Montenegro or going to Albania, nothing more," said a solider manning a border checkpoint - his presence a violation of the constitution under which frontier controls are the responsibility of the Montenegrin police not theYugoslav Army, VJ.

Reports in Podgorica say that the VJ has also deployed along the Montenegrin-Bosnian border, although the border crossing at Scepan Polje remains open.

The Serbian-Montenegrin border is well guarded too, with regular police recently joined by military police, bringing any remaining trade between the two republics to an effective halt. For the past week, air passengers arriving in Belgrade from Montenegro have had their documents inspected and their luggage searched. Some have been detained.

The federal forces would seem to pose a significant threat to Montenegro. The republic has made no official response, but behind the scenes the Djukanovic government has been strengthening his police forces, now reported to be over 10,000-strong. They include well-trained special units fiercely loyal to the Montenegrin political leadership.

VJ troops in Montenegro have however expressed criticism of the federal army leadership, according to military sources quoted by the Podgorica weekly Monitor. Some soldiers have said they still serve in the army in Montenegro only because they would struggle to find other jobs. " The use of the army against Montenegrin MUP [police] and the people would result in the final demise of the VJ," one high-ranking VJ officer told Monitor.

Dissension within army ranks led to the formation last year of the 7th Battalion - an elite force with unquestioning allegiance to Belgrade. Recruits are drawn from members of the Socialist National Party of Djukanovic's arch-rival, Momir Bulatovic, who is also the federal prime minister and firmly pro-Milosevic.

With high salaries and more comfortable positions than in the regular army, this new battalion has become a further source of jealousy and disgruntlement. Many Second Army officers whose loyalty was suspect, especially those of Montenegrin origin, were dismissed en masse. They've been replaced by Milosevic loyalists such as Generals Vasiljevic, Vaskovic and Muncan from the security department of the army's chief headquarters.

In addition to setting up what is in effect a parallel army, Milosevic has dispatched reinforcements from the Third and First armies to Montenegro. IWPR military sources in Belgrade interpret the moves as preparations for open conflict. "For us, the war is a fait accompli. We just don't know exactly when it will take place," one high-ranking VJ officer said.

Another officer in the VJ leadership said, "The triggers have been cocked, and I fear it is a matter of days when everything will explode. No one in Serbia nor the VJ can stop the Belgrade regime."

An all-out assault by the Yugoslav Army however could provoke a military response from the West and even split the army as some VJ soldiers from Serbia have said openly that they will not shoot at Montenegrins.Pro-Milosevic Montenegrins from the northern parts of the republic could take on the role of Milosevic's infantry. Officers from Milosevic's security service have been deployed throughout the republic and in Second Army units, enabling them to provide logistical support to paramilitary formations loyal to Belgrade.

The Yugoslav Army calculates that NATO forces would need at least a week before they could renew attacks on Serbia or actively help Montenegro. Belgrade believes that is enough time to assess whether it can take complete control over Montenegro - or lose it irretrievably.

Milka Tadic is editor of Monitor in Podgorica. Daniel Sunter is a journalist with the VIP agency in Belgrade.

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