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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Montenegro Braces for Worst From Milosevic

Military: Replacement of tiny republic's army leader with hard-liner is seen as step toward coup attempt.

April 03, 1999|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Slobodan Milosevic's replacement of his top army commander in Montenegro with a hard-line ally prompted a warning Friday from NATO to the Yugoslav president not to try to overthrow the tiny republic's democratically elected government.

From ordinary citizens to reformist President Milo Djukanovic, many Montenegrins are trying to keep a lid on ethnic and political tensions in the republic, but the threat to the government's stability appears to be growing.

"Although I cannot give you the details today, I can say that we have evidence to show that [Milosevic] is preparing a coup against Montenegro to replace President Djukanovic," British Defense Ministry official Edgar Buckley told reporters in London on Friday.

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, speaking in Brussels, warned Friday that the alliance would take action if Milosevic sent troops from Serbia into Montenegro to overthrow Djukanovic, who is seen as Milosevic's most significant political rival within Yugoslavia. Serbia and the much smaller Montenegro are all that is left of the Yugoslav federation.

"Milosevic should know that if he decides to do something of that nature . . . he will be stopped," Solana said. "We have plans to stop him."

Such action could come as part of NATO's campaign of airstrikes against Yugoslav military targets, Solana said. There are already an estimated 15,000 Yugoslav soldiers stationed in Montenegro, But many are of Montenegrin origin, and their loyalty to Milosevic in any violent showdown with Djukanovic's government might be minimal.

In an apparent attempt to firm up his control of the Yugoslav army forces in Montenegro, Milosevic this week replaced several of its generals, including its top commander.

Yugoslavia's official Tanjug news agency reported Thursday that Milosevic had named Gen. Milorad Obradovic to replace Gen. Radosav Martinovic as army commander in Montenegro. Obradovic is an ally of Milosevic, while Martinovic had maintained reasonably smooth relations with the civilian authorities of the Montenegrin government.

Many Montenegrins, meanwhile, are doing their best to try to cool the tensions.

"There is no reason to panic," Social Welfare Minister Predrag Drecun told a news conference Friday in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital.

Striving to Avoid Strife

At the McDonald Bar in the town of Tuzi, just outside Podgorica, the liquor was flowing and the conversation was lively in a mixed Montenegrin-Albanian group when some foreign visitors walked in recently.

An ethnic Albanian man stood up, greeted the strangers and motioned to Ratko Popovic, with whom he was sharing a table. "Serb," the Albanian man said, slashing his own neck in a throat-cutting motion--but with a huge grin on his face.

"I am Montenegrin, not Serb," Popovic, 53, said, correcting his friend. "I think it is very important that I come here and be with them. You will pass, but we will still be here. They are good boys. This is my home. This is also the home of my friends the Albanians."

Even Montenegro's main opposition party, the pro-Milosevic Socialist People's Party, said Friday that it wants stability.

"In a state of war, any change in the authorities would represent a revolution, a change brought about by violence and civil strife," said Predrag Bulatovic, the party's vice president. "We want to avoid this."

Montenegrin Foreign Minister Branko Perovic, in an interview conducted before the replacement of Martinovic by the hard-line Obradovic, was asked whether Milosevic might order the army to take over the Montenegrin government. He replied: "Obviously, this is a possibility, but I don't think this is a good moment to do it, having all those airstrikes in Kosovo.

"We will oppose [any military takeover] by every possible means," Perovic added. "It is part of the history of Montenegro: If someone is trying to suppress it by force, the reaction will be very intense. I think all Montenegrins will be against such a measure."

The Montenegrin government controls heavily armed police who are loyal to Djukanovic, with their numbers estimated at about 10,000, compared with the estimated 15,000 Yugoslav army troops in Montenegro. In a fight between the two, the Yugoslav army could be expected to prevail, but there could be heavy resistance. Montenegro's population is 650,000.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Friday that "this sudden change of key military officers in Montenegro indicates that President Milosevic has serious concerns about the loyalty of his troops."

"We do not have exact figures," Rubin said. "We believe that a large percentage of the Yugoslav military personnel stationed in Montenegro are ethnic Montenegrins. So Montenegro is a very important place right now. We're watching it very, very closely. Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright is discussing this daily with her colleagues from other NATO countries, and it's a matter of some concern to us."

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