Bombs make Serbs seek endgame

One town hit by bombs on Sunday remains defiant as peace talks

While high-level peace negotiations to end the war in Yugoslavia gain momentum, the people in a sleepy town in southern Serbia speak not of surrender, but of stubborn pride.

Awakened by the roar of two low-flying NATO airplanes on Sunday, the residents of Varvarin ran out to see a steel bridge lying in the muddy water of the South Morava River. At least nine were dead, 30 injured. The townspeople seemed undaunted.

"NATO bombed to show how powerful they are," says Dragoljub Stanojevic, a school teacher who stood near the fallen bridge, which had been blasted away just after noon on a market day. "But they don't scare us."

"We want to end this war, but not with an ultimatum and not with humiliating requests by NATO."

Mr. Stanojevic, like others in Serbia, was puzzled by the attack and it's timing. Why did it take place during the day, when villagers were walking across the bridge? Why did it happen just after reports of diplomatic progress between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin?

SOME answers can be found in Kosovo, the province where Serbian forces maintain a heavy presence and continue to assault the ethnic Albanians, nearly a million of whom have already been forced from their homes. NATO has targeted bridges that might help reinforce Yugoslav forces in Kosovo.

Other answers are in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, from where Mr. Milosevic is engaged in a battle of wills with the 19-country NATO alliance.

Analysts say Milosevic is moving closer to accepting a peace deal for Kosovo that would stop the bombing. He has reportedly approved the outline put forth by the G-8, a loose alliance composed of the US, Russia, and six other leading industrial countries - although the details remain vague.

At the same time, however, Milosevic is trying to ensure his political survival - not an easy task when he was indicted last week for war crimes by a United Nations tribunal and when his country's infrastructure is being taken apart by increasingly intense bombings.

"There have been so many times that this could have ended if Milosevic and the West were not hypnotized [by politics]," says the leader of an opposition party in Serbia. "But, they both want to end it on their terms."

NATO is also in a precarious position. If Milosevic stalls, and winter nears, the alliance must worry about the ethnic Albanian refugees, and their fate in a harsh Balkan winter. With each passing month it becomes increasingly difficult for NATO to present its mission as a success.

Furthermore, NATO is still hesitant to send ground troops into Kosovo, and their only means to force a Yugoslav surrender is more bombing. NATO officials predicted last week that Milosevic will concede in a matter of weeks. In Belgrade, officials seem most consumed with their political fate after the war.

It is still unclear if NATO would settle for a peace deal with Milosevic, an accused war criminal, in which he is the guarantor. For the Yugoslav regime, there is no other way.

"We can make big concessions, but we cannot just capitulate because we could easily lose power after the war," said an official from Yugoslavia's ruling coalition quoted in VIP, an independent and respected Belgrade newsletter. "In that case it would be better for us to wait for a ground intervention."

The latest plan brokered by Mr. Chernomyrdin, the Russian diplomat, would allow a UN-led force into Kosovo with the approval of the Security Council. Troops from NATO would be positioned near the borders, but the bulk of the region would be filled by soldiers from so-called neutral countries, such as Russia and Finland.

Both the US and Russia have yet to agree to the plan. NATO is sure to want a greater role in policing Kosovo, and the nationality of the commander of the force is likely to be disputed.

For now, however, the issue is who will make the first move. NATO wants Milosevic to pull his troops out of Kosovo before they stop the bombing. Milosevic wants a halt to the bombing first.

In the meantime, ethnic Albanians continue to be driven from their homes and bombs continue to amass civilian casualties in Serbia.

"People feel like they are hostages to NATO and Milosevic," says a Serbian political operative who has traveled throughout the republic in the past weeks. "The basic, dominant feeling here is a desire to get peace immediately."

In Varvarin, where the bridge was destroyed Sunday, people seemed more confused than anything - touched by sorrow, rage, and exhaustion.

"If the length of the war depended on us," said Mr. Stanojevic, the teacher, "it would have never started."

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