Milosevic opponents strike blow in bridge battle

NOVI SAD, Yugoslavia, Feb 2, 2000 -- (Reuters) The opposition-held Serbian town of Novi Sad on Tuesday marked the start of work to replace one of its three Danube bridges destroyed in last year's NATO air strikes.

But the short ceremony on the banks of the key international waterway marked not so much the start of reconstruction as the latest move in a fierce political battle over the blocked river both within Yugoslavia and Europe as a whole.

Officials unveiled a board by the riverside predicting the restoration of a permanent link between the city and its southern suburbs within a year, while workers busied themselves clearing some of the debris from the broken bridge.

"This bridge is a symbol of the return of life to Novi Sad," said Predrag Filipov, head of the city government and an opponent of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Neither the emotional words nor the buzzing of a small crane could hide the fact that for the time being the project, like the river, remains blocked by the fallout from the bombing.

"It's just for the cameras, it's a terrible lie. Do you think they can really lift that lot out?" said pensioner Sava Mikic, pointing to the hulks of twisted metal in the river.

Bridges became propaganda tool in Yugoslavia

Capitalizing on the horror felt by people at the bombing of the bridges, Belgrade put "human shields" on Serbian bridges during the air strikes - launched to force Milosevic to accept an international peace plan for majority Albanian Kosovo.

It has since put much of its energy into rebuilding or repairing them, using the construction to blast its opponents who it says are lackeys of Western leaders bent not on building but destroying and occupying Yugoslavia piece by piece.

Hence the ceremony by the Novi Sad authorities, aimed at scoring a political point over Belgrade, which has presented its own, competing plan for the costly bridge, but not launched it.

It is also meant to force the West to lift sanctions.

Until last week, the West's insistence that no reconstruction aid could be given to Serbia while Milosevic was in power meant the river could not be cleared, as he refused to let the European waterway be cleared without help to rebuild.

However, Austria said it and Hungary then won a breakthrough, persuading Belgrade to drop its condition.

"The Yugoslavs have understood that it wouldn't make much sense to continue with their objections," Werner Senfter, first secretary at the Austrian embassy in Belgrade, told Reuters.

The Danube Commission, made up of countries bordering the 1,700 mile (2,850 kilometer) waterway, was thus able to ask the European Union to help fund a $24 million cleanup of the debris.

But even if the EU approves clearance, Novi Sad cannot start serious work until Europe changes its mind on reconstruction.

David Forman, deputy leader of the city council of the British city of Norwich, twinned with Novi Sad for 40 years, says there is growing pressure for it to do just that.

One of a gaggle of local leaders from countries including Greece, Italy and Ukraine attending the ceremony, Forman criticized Britain's hardline stance on sanctions.

"Sanctions should be lifted in those areas where people were innocent victims of the bombing," he said.

"We need to help the people of Novi Sad in their relations with the federal government."