Belgrade joins opposition in urging sanctions end

BELGRADE, Jan 29, 2000 -- (Reuters) The Belgrade government on Friday joined an opposition chorus calling for an end to sanctions in what one opposition leader said was a bid to reap the benefit from any change in policy by the West.

The government says the international sanctions imposed since 1992 over Slobodan Milosevic's role in the conflicts which tore through Yugoslavia are part of a Western plot to destroy and then occupy Serbia.

But in recent months it has kept quiet while its domestic opponents lobbied the West hard for an end to the penalties.

The opposition argues sanctions only help Milosevic, first Serbian, now Yugoslav president, stay in power by allowing him to blame the outside world for his country's deepening economic crisis and maintain tight controls on sources of finance.

Many European countries agree with the opposition, but Britain, the Netherlands and the United States argue that lifting sanctions would play into Milosevic's hands by breaking his isolation and giving him a financial lifeline.

"The headline of this news conference is: 'Lift sanctions'," assistant foreign minister Nebojsa Vujovic said in a rare public appearance by officials from the normally-reclusive government.

He also reiterated Belgrade's stance that the West has violated international agreements on Kosovo, including the UN Security Council resolution that ended last year's NATO air strikes, by failing to protect Serbs in the province.

He said 1,500 non-Albanians had been killed or gone missing since NATO replaced Yugoslav forces in Kosovo in June. International organizations put the figure at several hundred.

Vujovic said the West's "continuation of the policy of war" towards Milosevic's government was counterproductive and that it would continue to press its case on Kosovo.

But he said it would not try to send Yugoslav troops and Serb police back there by force, a prospect regularly raised by army commanders who cite an agreement with the West allowing for a return of several hundred Serb "personnel" at some point.

"We would not lean on the use of force but we would always search for legal methods and address the (United Nations) Security Council and all international public to solve this issue based on legal grounds," Vujovic said.

NATO, which leads some 40,000 heavily-armed peacekeepers in Kosovo, has dismissed the army's threats as saber rattling.

Slobodan Vuksanovic, vice president of the opposition Democratic Party, told Reuters the government's decision to add its voice to opposition's calls on sanctions was no surprise.

"Probably they suppose that now there is some chance for lifting sanctions and want to present that as their victory...They don't really care, with or without sanctions they will say people should be grateful only to them," he said.