BRUSSELS, Nov 29, 1999 -- (Reuters) The European Union stepped up a war of words with Yugoslavia on Sunday over a four-day border delay which has prevented EU heating oil reaching two opposition-held Serbian towns.
A top EU official demanded the immediate release of a heating plant director arrested in one of the towns on Friday, and put the blame for the oil not reaching Nis and Pirot squarely on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
"My message to the citizens of Nis and Pirot is simple: we have the oil waiting at the border, but I regret to say that Mr. Milosevic and his officials have thus far prevented us from getting it through to you," Chris Patten, the EU's commissioner for foreign relations, said in a statement.
"I particularly deplore the detention of the head of the district heating system in Nis and call for his immediate release."
Nis Mayor Zoran Zivkovic, an opposition figure, said heating plant director Radislav Zlatanovic had been taken into custody by police on Friday after he said the plant had run out of fuel and cut off heating to the town.
Milosevic supporters said cutting off the heating was a political stunt, and the Yugoslav authorities have said the shipment is merely having normal customs checks.
But about 8,000 people took to the streets of Nis on Saturday, accusing the Belgrade authorities of blocking the EU deliveries, and the opposition-dominated municipal assembly decided to illegally use state reserves to keep people warm.
Patten has played a leading role in the EU program known as Energy for Democracy, which is intended to help ordinary Serbs through winter and boost opposition efforts to oust Milosevic.
He likened the delay to the absurd world of bureaucracy in the works of Prague novelist Franz Kafka.
"The fuel is badly needed. It could be there within hours, Instead, it has been at the border for four days, with officials citing ever more Kafka-esque reasons for holding it up," Patten said.
"The events of the last four days underscore once again why political change is so badly needed in Serbia to deliver a government genuinely interested in the welfare of its people."
The 14 trucks stuck at the border with almost 350 tons of fuel are trying to make the first of a series of deliveries intended eventually to bring about 25,000 tons of heating oil to opposition-controlled Serbian towns.
Power problems were exacerbated by NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia earlier this year over Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province.
None of the oil is intended for the Belgrade leadership, and the 15-nation bloc has not dropped a fuel embargo on Yugoslavia.
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