EU to mull relations with Serbia, Russia

BRUSSELS, Jan 24, 2000 -- (Reuters) European Union foreign ministers will on Monday consider extending oil deliveries to more Serbian towns under a project intended to encourage opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

EU officials said the 15 ministers would also weigh up ties with Russia without imposing new sanctions on Moscow over the war in Chechnya, and discuss the Middle East peace process over lunch with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

The EU has delivered heating oil to two opposition-held Serbian towns, Nis and Pirot, under its Energy for Democracy program despite being forced by Belgrade to undergo long and humiliating customs checks at the Yugoslav border.

Some EU members want to extend the program to more areas held by the opposition. Others agree with opposition leaders who say such aid should not be discriminatory and want the program extended to some towns that are not in opposition to Milosevic.

"The ministers will encourage the Commission to prepare the extension of the Energy for Democracy program to additional cities held by the opposition," a spokesman for the Portuguese presidency said of the ministers' monthly meeting in Brussels.

An EU diplomat said: "Quite a lot of the member states think we should listen to the Serbian opposition and go down the road they propose by extending the aid beyond opposition-dominated municipalities."

EU officials said privately the first deliveries, intended to help ordinary people through winter and to highlight the inadequacies of the Yugoslav leadership, had proved difficult.

But they said the EU was determined to continue a program which it believes further isolates Milosevic, whom it regards as the main obstacle to democracy and stability in the region.

EU diplomats have said the Union could eventually extend the program to nearly 30 towns and cities but has not named them.

Despite the plan, an oil embargo remains in force against Yugoslavia, as does a flight ban. Both will be discussed on Monday but they are expected to be kept in place because Britain and the Netherlands oppose lifting them.

No new sanctions on Moscow

The ministers will have their first group discussion on Russia since Boris Yeltsin resigned as president on December 31 and Prime Minister and Acting President Vladimir Putin emerged as the frontrunner to win a presidential election in March.

They will discuss implementation of plans they announced last month to shift some economic assistance to humanitarian aid as a punishment for what they call Russia's disproportionate use of force in Chechnya, where it says it is fighting "terrorists".

The ministers will reiterate "concerns about the continuing violence in Chechnya and repeat (their) condemnation of the indiscriminate use of force by the Russian authorities and the resulting dramatic humanitarian situation," the EU presidency said.

EU diplomats said the ministers would not impose any new sanctions, partly because most member states do not want to jeopardize long-term relations with the Russian leadership.

Discussion will turn to the Middle East when Arafat arrives for lunch after talks in Washington. Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will inform the ministers about their trip to the Middle East last week.

The EU is trying to raise its profile in the Middle East, where its diplomatic weight does not match its importance as a financial contributor.

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