NYT - November 1, 1999

A Plan to Rebuild Danube Bridges Widens Gap on Aid to Serbs

BUCHAREST, Romania -- Over strong American and British opposition, France and Germany are backing a European Union plan to aid Yugoslavia by building a temporary bridge over the Danube and clearing the wrecks of the bridges bombed by NATO earlier this year.

Under the plan, the European Union would provide $25 million and the technical means to haul away debris of three bombed bridges at Novi Sad, Serbia's second-largest city, which block traffic on Europe's longest river.

The plan would include sending an old dismantled Danube bridge now stored near Vienna and temporarily installing it at Novi Sad.

European officials and experts involved in the negotiations, some of whom attended a conference here led by Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church, said that details were being worked out and the money was available.

If approved, aid is likely to cause new friction between Europe and the United States, which has argued it would violate sanctions that prohibit economic assistance and trade with the government of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.

Washington's backing is important because the Americans can best assess whether there is still unexploded ordnance on the river bed, and, if so, how to clear it.

The United States and its European allies have already clashed over how best to isolate and weaken Milosevic.

Washington objects to a European plan to send heating oil to two Serbian cities, Nis and Pirot, that are controlled by Milosevic's opponents. The shipments are to start in mid-November.

Washington argues that Milosevic could use assistance to his advantage; the Europeans, led by France and Germany, counter that an American policy that envisages a cold and hungry population ousting Milosevic is too tough on ordinary people, and unlikely to succeed.

In the case of the bridges, there are other practical concerns: blockage of the Danube is crippling shipping and trade along the 1,800-mile waterway, which links 10 countries. There are also fears of flooding.

"Freeing this great European river has important practical and financial consequences for all the Europeans who live on its banks, but most significantly for the people of Romania and Bulgaria," Patriarch Bartholomew wrote in an appeal for European Union aid sent after he traveled through the region.

Losses in trade and shipping revenues, estimated at some $200 million, have had the most impact in the poorest countries, notably Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine, where hundreds of barges lie idle and some shipping companies have laid off half their workers.

"Moving cargo like coal, iron ore or wheat is four to five times cheaper by river," said Anatoli Georgiev, a director of the Ukrainian Danubian Shipping Company, which he said has had to let go of many dockworkers and boat crews.

There is almost no traffic on the Danube, normally bustling. At Galati, a Romanian port, several boat captains said they had not worked for four months. "The few barges going up the river are heading for Serbia, with Russian cargo and oil," said Valerio Panzar, a boat captain. His remarks indicated that Russia is not adhering strictly to the sanctions against Milosevic. Experts from the Danube Commission, which oversees navigation, said that Milosevic has been receiving Russian oil via barges that use a bypass channel.

Some scientists also warn of the danger of vast flooding if ice piles up and effectively forms a dam behind the wrecks of the bridges and a pontoon bridge the Serbs recently put across the Danube at Novi Sad.

Under a treaty regulating traffic on the Danube, Milosevic's government is obliged to clear obstacles from the river, or let others do so. But Serbia says the wrecked bridges can be cleared only if the West pays and builds three new bridges.

If agreement is reached, the big question remains whether the work can be done before winter. The Danube is low now, which will ease the clearing work. Once frost sets in, work would be impossible, experts say, meaning the river would remain closed until next spring or summer.