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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Story of Bridge Bombing Builds Support

April 06, 1999|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PODGORICA, Yugoslavia — Bicycling home from work the other day, Zvonimir Sabljar was one of the people on the other side of the smart-bomb videos seen on U.S. television.

The story of people on the Danube River "Freedom" bridge near the city of Novi Sad, hit by precision NATO bombing Saturday night, was described in detail Monday in the independent Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti, one of Yugoslavia's more respected newspapers.

Powerful in its descriptions, impossible to confirm in its details, the bridge-bombing story and the kind of reporting used to explain it to Serbs help explicate the apparently growing support seen all across this country for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Even in independent publications, an overwhelmingly strong sense is being projected that Yugoslavia is the innocent victim of an aggressive and unjustified North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign.

"I was riding my bike home from the Novi Sad direction," said Sabljar, according to the Glas Javnosti report. "I could not believe that thing was flying toward me. I threw myself down and waited until it hit."

Bleeding badly from a leg cut caused by falling bridge cables, Sabljar tied something around his leg to try to stop the blood, then "lighted a cigarette and tried to walk to a man who was nearby," he said.

"Then I took off my shirt and burned it, so people could see we were on the bridge," he said. "That's when it hit for the second time."

Slobodan Savic, a cameraman for Novi Sad television, was driving over the bridge when the first bomb hit, Glas Javnosti reported.

"The shell literally exploded before my eyes," he said. "I was blinded. My car hit the fence and stopped. I'd hurt my head, and then realized I couldn't move my leg. I couldn't open my door so somehow crawled out of the car using the other door.

"A young man was on the bridge. His leg was hurt. I tried to walk but I couldn't."

Then, someone from a boat in the river below climbed up the bridge and carried him down to the boat.

Among the rescuers was Velja Todorovic, whose story ran under a separate headline: "Fisherman Velja Saved Nine Lives."

"After the first blow, which was incredible, when the missile hit the pillar of the bridge, I saw that on one remaining side of the bridge, two cars were slipping into the Danube," the paper quoted Todorovic, who was in his fishing boat, as saying. "One car went into the water, while the other stopped only a few meters from the surface."

"I tried to see if there was somebody in the [submerged] car, but then a voice called me from the remains of the bridge," Todorovic said. "He said the car was his and nobody was left in it. I asked all these people I saw to slowly come to my boat. At first, they refused. They were still in shock. But I yelled at them, which I think woke them up. So they helped down first the older man, then two young men and two women."

Just as those people got into his boat, the city air-raid siren came on, he said.

"I saw another missile flying our way," Todorovic said. "When it hit, the water rose and started getting into the boat. Using all of our remaining strength, we managed somehow to get away from the bridge and reach the shore."

Todorovic unloaded his passengers, picked up two other men to help out, and returned to the bridge to pick up the rest of the victims, including a man who was badly injured, he said. The two volunteers "climbed back up the bridge remains and carried the injured man to the boat," he said.

A gray-haired architect with tears in his eyes, interviewed while looking at the ruined bridge, had only a one-word comment, Glas Javnosti reported: "Criminals."

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