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Crisis in Yugoslavia

3,000 to 4,000 U.S. Civilians Believed Stuck in Yugoslavia

Residents: Embassy is closed, diplomats gone. Many of those living in the two republics hold dual citizenship.

April 03, 1999|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Between 3,000 and 4,000 American civilians are believed to be stranded in Yugoslavia with little hope of assistance from the U.S. government if President Slobodan Milosevic decides to vent his anger at them, Clinton administration officials said Friday.

The U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, was closed and all American diplomats were evacuated last week after Washington and Belgrade broke diplomatic relations on the first day of the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.

A State Department official said a "handful" of American civilians accompanied the departing diplomats in a parade of automobiles and vans on the highway route to Budapest, Hungary, last week.

But those Americans who chose to stay are now pretty much on their own. The administration appointed Sweden to look after U.S. interests in Belgrade, a common diplomatic technique when two nations break relations.

The Swedes accepted the designation, but the Yugoslav authorities have not yet acknowledged the neutral European nation as Washington's "protecting power." The Yugoslav government has not yet named a country to be its representative in Washington.

Unlike the evacuations of Americans and other foreigners from a number of strife-torn countries around the world in recent years--including a March 1997 airlift from neighboring Albania--there will be no U.S. charter or military flights from Yugoslavia.

"Before last week, the airport was open and the land borders were open," a State Department official said. "Anyone who wanted to leave could do so."

Now it is impossible for the United States to organize an evacuation because U.S. military and diplomatic officials are not allowed to enter the country as a NATO campaign punishes Milosevic for his campaign against ethnic Albanians in separatist Kosovo province.

The State Department official said the estimate of up to 4,000 Americans was based on the number of people who registered with the embassy, as all citizens are urged--but not required--to do. The figure has not been adjusted to reflect anyone who may have gotten out since the U.S. mission closed.

Another administration official said most of the Americans still in Yugoslavia are longtime residents of Serbia or Montenegro, the two Yugoslav republics, and that many hold dual citizenship. The rest are mostly businesspeople. A federal law prohibits the State Department from providing information about specific individuals.

For most of this decade, the State Department has been urging Americans to stay out of Yugoslavia. Most of the people who ignored those warnings had a compelling reason to do so, officials said.

While the embassy was operating, diplomats tried to keep track of Americans through a "warden" system in which the embassy contacted designated people who, in turn, contacted others. The State Department officials said the Swedish Embassy has taken over that system but that it is not clear how well it has been working since the start of hostilities last week.

"Our point of contact with Americans was through the embassy," an official said. Since the embassy closed, he said, the U.S. government has not tried to contact Americans directly.

During an earlier Yugoslav crisis in October, most U.S. diplomats drove to Budapest accompanied by those Americans who wanted to leave. When the crisis eased, many of the diplomats returned.

The U.S. government is able to provide far more assistance to Americans and other foreigners caught up in wars and rebellions in which the United States is not a combatant, as it is in the Balkans, where Milosevic's government regards Washington as his chief enemy.

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