Bombs hardening Serb attitudes

NATO strikes in Belgrade pump up nationalist rage. A negotiated end to

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Sasa, a young professional, returned here from London last week to fight against NATO. His best friend, Nemanje Vucinic, a dentist, says he will join the army "the very first moment an American steps on our territory."

The two once were liberal-minded opponents of Slobodan Milosevic's regime. Now they are anti-American, anti-Albanian and ready to die to keep Kosovo part of Serbia and to protect their country from Western aggressors.

"Milosevic is not important anymore," says Mr. Vucinic. "This is about defending our country."

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The residents of Belgrade have been swept into an unprecedented rage following nearly two weeks of relentless pummeling by NATO. Nationalism, here, has been pumped to new heights, and support for Milosevic has become more unified. It is the opposite of what NATO planners had hoped for, and it makes the possibility of a Serbian surrender unlikely.

"This is definitely a horrible mistake by America," says a pro-Western Serbian intellectual. "Whatever NATO does, the Serbs will never accept an agreement with them. I'm not saying it's smart, but that's our mentality."

Over the weekend, NATO bombs struck downtown Belgrade for the first time, leaving a police building and a military headquarters in flames. They lit up a main boulevard like massive torches, and could be seen from miles away.

Yesterday, NATO strikes intensified, reportedly hitting a police academy, a heating plant, a fuel depot, and a factory north of Kosovo. Witnesses report two of three bridges in the major city of Novi Sad were destroyed. The loss not only debilitates the Serbian forces' resupply routes, but shuts off access across the Danube River north to Hungary.

The bombs appear to have hit their targets with pinpoint accuracy. Still, Yugoslav officials reported three deaths and 16 injured in the latest airstrikes.

The problems caused by the airstrikes - and Milosevic's refusal to back down - are fanning across the Balkans, a region that is already tense with ethnic animosity.

The ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, fleeing the region by the tens of thousands amid reports of ethnic cleansing and mass executions, are rapidly exhausting the resources of neighboring countries. Macedonia, a tiny and unstable country bordering Kosovo, announced Saturday it could accept no more refugees.

MONTENEGRO, the small republic that along with Serbia that makes up Yugoslavia, also has been hit by waves of Albanian refugees. The US-backed government of President Milo Djukanovic is bracing for a possible coup by Milosevic-backed hardliners. The commander of the 2nd Yugoslav Army, based in Montenegro, was recently replaced by a Milosevic loyalist.

"Mr. Milosevic and his followers are bringing about the disintegration of this country," Djukanovic said in a television interview this weekend.

In Belgrade, daily demonstrations - at first music concerts and peace protests - are becoming nationalist rallies. Anti-Western slogans are becoming harsher, and Serbs are increasingly waving the flags of Russia and Greece - two Christian Orthodox countries that have been sympathetic to Yugoslavia.

Western buildings, such as the American Cultural Center, also on the main boulevard, have become shrines of hatred. They are covered with Nazi swastikas and violent curses.

Vojislav Seselj, the ultranationalist Serbian vice-premier, was recently seen walking through the center of town with his four sons - in an usual display of public defiance. Others on the street crowded around him approvingly as he walked on with a stern look on his face.

Serbian forces are on the street en masse, and continue to intimidate the press. Police on Saturday - with pistols drawn - jumped the car of two foreign journalists for no apparent reason. Other foreign journalists have been expelled or denied access to damage sites.

Many residents of Belgrade, such as Sasa and Mr. Vucinic, the two best friends, say they are sinking into a world in which no one feels safe. More than blind hatred for the US, they feel betrayed, that the US they once looked to for help in delivering a democracy to Serbia is dropping bombs on them.

"I used to want to go to the States to live," says Vucinic. "Now I will never go - not even to visit."

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