Serb jets buzz Patten convoy as it crosses into Montenegro

By Stephen Castle

11 March 2000

Podgorica - Yugoslav jets staged a fly-over above the Montenegrin capital Podgorica yesterday, on the day Chris Patten, the European Commissioner for External Relations, became the first Western politician to visit the independence-minded republic since the Kosovo conflict.

Amid growing concern that Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, is preparing to destabilise the region again, Mr Patten underlined Europe's support by pledging a multimillion-pound package of European funds for Montenegro.

The pro-Western republic is the junior partner in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which also includes Serbia.

Despite the display by the Yugoslav air force, which was seen as an act of intimidation, Mr Patten's motorcade was able to cross the border into Montenegro without stopping, and faced no challenge by the Yugoslav army or police. Later he switched to a Montenegrin police helicopter to complete the journey to Podgorica.

Privately, Western officials are warning that Mr Milosevic is strengthening his special forces in Montenegro as a prelude to a possible spring destabilisation of the republic, which is distancing itself from Belgrade. At a press conference in Podgorica, the republic's President, Milo Djukanovic, said the situation "could result in another crisis in the Balkans".

A local newspaper, Vijesti, said last week that armoured vehicles from the Yugoslav army had been seen in Podgorica. Montenegro's borders with Serbia have been sealed, cutting off supplies of food and medicines.

Mr Patten promised yesterday to boost planned help of 60m euros (£37m) by a further 5m euros to fund infrastructure projects and bypass restrictions imposed in the international community because of the republic's status as part of Yugoslavia.

The commissioner said he was "extremely concerned that, as part of his customary, spring trouble-making, Mr Milosevic is trying to make waves in the region in general, and Montenegro in particular. Some of the decisions he has taken in the last few days, involving its borders, suggest that he is up to his old, malign tricks. We want to help the government in Montenegro, which is determined on a democratic future, to keep on the rails. That involves giving them assistance to get through the next few months."

The West has urged Mr Djukanovic not to pursue his preferred option of declaring independence in case this provokes direct intervention by Belgrade. But, as a part of Yugoslavia, Montenegro cannot receive significant aid from most international institutions.Mr Patten's 5m euro package will avoid being channelled through the government by going to specific projects, including a bridge at Mora in Podgorica and a road linking the capital with its airport.

Original article