NIS, Yugoslavia, Dec 2, 1999 -- (Reuters) Several thousand people protested in the Serbian town of Nis on Wednesday against a week-long hold up by the authorities of European Union-funded heating oil destined for their town.
Nis and the nearby town of Pirot, both run by opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, were chosen for a pilot project by the EU for a so-called "Energy for Democracy" scheme aimed at helping Serbia's weak opposition to oust Milosevic.
The scheme is due to be expanded to other towns to show the West wants to help ordinary Serbs cope with winter hardships exacerbated by NATO air strikes and sanctions and international sanctions which it plans to keep in place until Milosevic goes.
But the obstacles faced by the first shipment have cast doubt over the future of the plan, which Western officials acknowledge is a risky experiment in politically-targeted aid.
The authorities have called the fuel deliveries discriminatory but have denied blocking them, saying the delay was caused by ordinary customs procedures and that the shippers had not met the proper requirements.
Nis Mayor Zoran Zivkovic told a crowd shivering in freezing temperatures in a central square of the southern city on Wednesday evening that the 14 trucks of oil were being put through a string of rigorous checks not normally applied.
"The problem now is that the trucks are too heavy," said Zivkovic, brandishing what he said were documents showing previous overweight fuel shipments had been allowed through with no problem.
Trucks from Europe
"The problem is with the trucks which come from Europe, the trucks that have come for you...that bring us hope that we'll return to Europe again," he said.
He said it they did not arrive soon, he would take demonstrators to Beli Dvor or the White Palace - the official residence Milosevic shares with his powerful wife Mirjana Markovic - to find out why.
"If the oil doesn't come we'll get on a train to Topcider, the station nearest to Beli Dvor, and we'll hire buses and pay for them and go and find out what they're doing," he said.
The rally, held on the 72nd day of daily opposition protests across Serbia, was billed as a special gathering to call for the release of the director of the town's heating plant, arrested for turning off the town's heating after the fuel got stuck.
He was released after three days and appeared at the rally to cheers from the protesters whom he thanked for their support.
The crowd included members of his political party, the Serbian Renewal Movement led by Vuk Draskovic, whose refusal to join the protests so far has been seen by analysts as a major reason why they have failed to gather steam.
Branislav Jovanovic, head of the Nis local government and a leading member of the Serbian Renewal Movement, said unity would help the opposition to oust Milosevic's leftist government, which counts on its opponents remaining divided.
"In their communist bunkers they are drinking the blood of the working classes," he told the protest.
Earlier on Wednesday, the public prosecutor in Nis launched an investigation into police charges the heating plant director had abused his office by switching off the heat unnecessarily.
Police said it was a political stunt, and that the town had enough fuel. The heating was later switched on but Nis officials said they were dipping into state reserves without permission.
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