Besieged Montenegro walks fine political line; Amid airstrikes, cutting ties to Serbia is discussed


PODGORICA, Yugoslavia -- The second night of war fell at the end of a sparkling spring day during which the people of Montenegro woke up after their first night under attack to assess the damage of the airstrikes and to ponder whether they wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia.

The sound of three explosions rolled over the rooftops of Montenegro's capital city. The source of the explosions could not be identified, but they came a day after NATO forces bombed the city's airport and several other military installations in Montenegro, the smaller of the two states that make up Yugoslavia.

Troops shift position

Last night, hundreds of Yugoslav troops based in Podgorica moved by foot and bus away from their usual positions, presumably to evade the allied forces.

While people elbowed each other in bakeries to get bread and cars lined up for hours at gas stations, Montenegro's politicians debated in parliament whether to announce a declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.

Such a move could trigger another war in the Balkans. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic probably would order the army to put down Montenegrin forces, which would be composed of the roughly 10,000 armed police in Montenegro. The government of Montenegro has refused to acknowledge Yugoslavia's declaration of a state of war and operates almost entirely separately from the Yugoslav federal government.

Two crises

People in Montenegro face two crises, the attack on their country by the allies and the threat to their land by their political partner, Serbia.

With the allies bombing Montenegro while promising to defend the country against Serbian aggression, Montenegrins are finding it hard to decide who their friends are. Many have concluded that they have none.

"I personally hate [Milosevic]. He's an idiot," said Viso Mijo, a retired miner and deep-sea diver. "But he's still better than your Clinton. I like every Tom, Dick and Harry more than the Americans."

At least twice yesterday, air raid sirens sounded in Podgorica, presumably indicating the detection of NATO observer planes overhead. Armed police patrolled the roads, and soldiers stood guard outside the government buildings where parliament continued to debate the fate of Montenegro.

Damaged in Montenegro were a radar installation, the military and civilian sections of the capital's airport and an air defense system about 12 miles from the capital. One Yugoslav soldier was reported killed. No civilian casualties were reported.

Although the coalition government of Montenegro led by President Milo Djukanovic has implied for months that it favors independence from Yugoslavia and Milosevic's autocratic rule, a large minority of parliament remains loyal to the Yugoslav leader.

'Divided society'

How many Montenegrins support independence and how many want to remain tied to Serbia, which, with a population of 10 million, overwhelms the 600,000 Montenegrins in numbers and political influence. Most people interviewed in Podgorica yesterday said they favored independence, but local journalists said many rural inhabitants of the state remain loyal to Milosevic.

"It's a very divided society," said Milka Tadic, business manager and writer for the local magazine Monitor. "Anything can happen. A strong unification with Serbia, independence, civil war."

One unknown, Tadic said, is which side the Yugoslav soldiers based in Montenegro would fight for in a war between Serbia and Montenegro.

Pub Date: 3/26/99

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