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Serb opposition welcomes lifting of EU flight ban

BELGRADE, Feb 15, 2000 -- (Reuters) The Serbian opposition welcomed the European Union's decision on Monday to suspend its flight embargo against the isolated Balkan country.

"This decision symbolically shows that the European Union is recognizing the democratic opposition in Serbia," said Predrag Simic of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), the largest opposition party.

EU foreign ministers agreed to suspend the ban on air links at a meeting in Brussels. But the 15-nation bloc moved to tighten financial sanctions to prevent Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's government from moving large amounts of cash through banks abroad.

The new EU package was intended to "rebalance" Western sanctions, relieving the hardships of ordinary Serbs while attempting to increase the pain on the government.

The number of people close to the government banned from obtaining Western visas will increase from around 600 to 800.

Serbia's opposition has long argued that international sanctions, which also include an oil embargo and an investment and credit ban, only help Milosevic hold on to power.

Simic, foreign policy adviser to SPO leader Vuk Draskovic, said the easing would strengthen opposition demands for early general elections. "This is just a beginning of a long road towards bringing democracy in Serbia and getting the country out of isolation," Simic said.

"This is excellent news - a signal that an alternative diplomacy is bearing fruit," said Zivojin Stjepic, secretary of the Christian Democratic Party.

"It shows that the international community sees the Serbian opposition as a serious partner for future cooperation."

Government officials were not as enthusiastic.

"The sanctions represent a discriminatory attitude of some states, which had not managed to implement their policy and now need the planes to have an easier access to Serbia to implement their policies," Yugoslav Information Minister Goran Matic said.

Ordinary Serbs, impoverished by years of Balkan wars and international sanctions, were not impressed. "You say the flight ban is suspended. We don't fly anywhere anyway. What about the oil embargo?" said Aleksandar, a 37-year old graphics engineer.

The flight ban was imposed in 1998 to punish Belgrade for its repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province.




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