Rickety railroad bridge becomes golden highway breaking Bosnia embargo


SREMSKA RACA, on the Serbia-Bosnia border -- The gap-toothed driver was about to commit a crime. But he showed no sign of apprehension as he swung his yellow tanker full of forbidden gasoline for the Bosnian Serbs toward the border. There was no need to.

Within minutes he was through with barely a check, flashing a three-fingered Serbian victory sign as the giant tanker hissed and rumbled on into Bosnia with its cargo of contraband.

It was an easy victory. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's orders to stop supplies to the Bosnian Serbs are seen as a joke on this little-known crossing into Bosnia over a rickety railroad bridge.

While the main border posts farther south over the River Drina are monitored by journalists, diplomats and United Nations personnel and are reported to be more or less obeying the Serbian strongman, it appears that nobody has bothered to come here to what was once a backwater crossing over another river, the Sava.

Serbs here have taken full advantage of their situation. They have turned this into a new golden highway, the main artery between Serbia and Bosnia.

A steady stream of heavy trucks and gasoline tankers passes through, making a terrible clacking sound as they rumble across the wooden slats of the bridge. Empty gas tankers and trucks return from Bosnia, sharing the road with trucks loaded with timber and coal destined for paper and electricity plants in Serbia.

Few are checked, and none is turned back. So much gasoline is going across that fuel prices are cheaper on the Bosnian side.

Blood ties, it appears, count here for more than any instructions from on high.

"Close the border?" a shopkeeper on the Serbian side laughed with derision. "They could try, but they could never really do that. We're all relatives this side and that. We all have one fight. I have four sons, and they will fight if they have to. That is my contribution."

A Serbian flag with the militant Serb Chetnik sign fluttered from his shop.

But it is not just fighting and solidarity on the minds of Serbs in the pretty villages along the narrow winding roads near Bosanska Raca.

Dozens of people have turned themselves into instant businessmen, setting up roadside stalls selling everything from ice cream to roast suckling pig. They report brisk business. Any money is accepted, including that printed by the self-styled Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb republics.

This new conduit into Bosnia feeds into the town of Bijeljina and what the Bosnian Serbs consider their most sacrosanct route: the corridor across northern Bosnia linking Serbia proper with Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. The main town at the other end of the highway is Banja Luka: More than a third of the trucks and gasoline tankers had Banja Luka number plates.

Cars were also crossing steadily into Bosnia, many with German, Swiss or Austrian license plates. They appeared to be Yugoslavian guest workers bringing supplies to relatives and friends in Bosnia. Checks on their cars were perfunctory, posing few problems for weapons smugglers.

The only concerted checks by Serbian police were on people entering Serbia from the other direction on buses. People were subjected to intrusive body searches and metal-detector checks. Even a young Serbian Orthodox priest in black flowing robes was not spared as people were pulled one by one from a bus.

The lax border controls appear to reflect easing pressure on both the Serbs and the Bosnian Serbs since the United States backed away from military intervention earlier this month. Threats of bombing were seen as the main reason behind Mr. Milosevic's decision to back the plan devised by envoys of the United Nations and European Community and to cut off supplies to the Bosnian Serbs.

With a common strategy on Bosnia formulated yesterday by the United States and its allies, the atmosphere around the crossing may become tense. Previous discussion of placing U.N. monitors along the border had hung like a guillotine over the nerves of local Serbs.

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