Serbian minister says 'saboteurs' buying up fuel

BELGRADE, Mar 7, 2000 -- (Reuters) Serbian Energy Minister Slobodan Tomovic on Monday accused unknown saboteurs of trying to destabilize the local fuel market amid signs of renewed petrol shortages.

"We have information about enormous purchases by some buyers who are trying to destabilize the market and then claim there is no fuel," Tomovic was quoted as saying by Vecernje Novosti, a daily newspaper taken over by the state at the weekend.

The government pushed prices of petrol on February 22 to 18.5 dinars from 10.6 dinars per liter of super and resumed cash sales via its petrol stations suspended in April 1999, a week after NATO launched its air war on Yugoslavia.

It also said the new price and plentiful supplies should squeeze out the illegal market. But two weeks after the promises, petrol peddlers resumed business, offering the fuel at prices ranging between 21 and 25 dinars per liter.

Serbia is still subject to an oil embargo imposed during the NATO bombing to keep the Yugoslav army away from Kosovo.

The state has been issuing coupons restricting monthly consumption to 20 liters per car, but since December, no petrol could be purchased for coupons at state-run petrol stations.

The rationing resulted in a booming black market, under which a handful of suppliers with links to the government sold fuel on to peddlers who offered it on the street.

According to government officials, Serbia heavily relies for its crude imports on Iraq, exporting food in return under a program monitored by the United Nations, and Lybia under an unspecified barter deal.

Its 1999 crude imports were reported at $327.6 million, according to officials statistics.

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