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US backs EU plan to suspend YU flight ban

WASHINGTON, Feb 10, 2000 -- (Reuters) The United States on Wednesday threw a lifeline to opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by backing a European Union plan to suspend its flight ban against Serbia and enhance so-called smart sanctions against supporters of Milosevic's regime.

The U.S. support was contingent on Europe expanding the list of Milosevic supporters barred from visas from the current 600, and taking steps to tighten financial sanctions if they approve the suspension at a foreign ministers' meeting next Monday.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the announcement at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Other international sanctions imposed since 1992 for Serbia's role in a series of Balkan wars were left intact.

"We, like the United States, are willing to look at a suspension of the flight ban for a period of six months in order that the opposition can demonstrate to the Serbian people that we are willing to listen to the voices of democracy," Cook said.

Albright said Washington was ready to consider backing the suspension, "but only if this step is taken along with other measures to strengthen, expand and focus those sanctions which most effectively target the regime and its supporters".

The suspension will only apply to European carriers and not the Yugoslav flag carrier JAT, a senior U.S. official said.

The move reflects a tentative spirit of optimism in the West that the election of a pro-Western government in Croatia could ease the Serbian opposition's path to power.

The United States up to now had opposed easing sanctions until elections were held in Yugoslavia but Albright said the Serbian opposition had taken steps toward stronger unity and that they should now agree on a common list of candidates.

"They have declared their intention to turn Yugoslavia toward the West and to break decisively with the disastrous policies of the Milosevic era," she said.

The United States wants a significant expansion of the visa ban and wider publication of restrictions on doing business in the region, a senior official said.

In October 1996, following a peace deal struck at Dayton, Ohio, the U.N. Security Council lifted trade sanctions imposed against the Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro.

But Western countries imposed a fresh wave of sanctions against Serbia because of repressions against the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo whose plight was the argument for NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia last year.

Last May, Washington extended its sanctions to ban oil sales and freeze Belgrade's assets in the United States. NATO had approved expanded economic sanctions, including an oil embargo, at its 50th anniversary summit in April.

The EU currently has an oil and flight embargo against the Balkan state as well as an investment and credit ban.

Serbian security forces withdrew from Kosovo in June following 11 weeks of NATO bombing of Yugoslav targets but the sanctions have remained to keep pressure on Milosevic.




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