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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Oil Blockade Option Rejected by France, Italy, Greece

Alliance: Failure to get NATO consensus, questions on plan's potential value apparently doom it.

April 20, 1999|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BRUSSELS — NATO now appears unlikely to win agreement from its 19 disparate members on an oil blockade of Yugoslavia, and U.S. oil experts and regional analysts question how much effect such a punitive measure would have on either Serbia's "ethnic cleansing" campaign or the military's hold on Kosovo.

France, Italy and Greece are opposed to a blockade intended to cripple the Yugoslav army's fuel supply because of questions about its legality and effectiveness and fears of a spillover on regional shipping.

"Too many countries are against the idea of the blockade," a senior official of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Monday.

U.S. officials reluctantly admitted that NATO may have to look at other alternatives, such as bombing a port or attacking fuel trucks headed to Serbia, to tighten the squeeze around the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic.

The division shows the strains in the alliance at a time when even officials in Brussels concede that the air campaign is not yet having the desired impact and that something more is needed. In the past, the allies have also disagreed on the type of targets and the pace of bombing.

NATO officials would still like to turn off the oil tap. "You remember the famous dictum of Napoleon that an army marches on its stomach. If he were alive today, he would say an army marches on its oil reserves. . . . Oil is a critical factor," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters Monday.

The United States is still exploring the possibility of boarding and searching ships in the Adriatic suspected of assisting the Yugoslav regime and its campaign against ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo, the White House and State Department said Monday.

"We think it's important that, working through the alliance, we choke off any efforts of oil being brought in from the outside," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Monday.

Under the United Nations umbrella, a sea blockade was imposed on Serbia in the mid-1990s during the Bosnian crisis. It proved to be instrumental in squeezing Milosevic to agree to negotiations that resulted in the Dayton accords.

But this time, the French oppose an oil blockade on grounds that the alliance needs "better legal cover to be able to stop boats on the high seas," a NATO diplomat said. "When it was done in Bosnia, there was a U.N. mandate. To do it now, you'd need something similar or a formal declaration of war."

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1160 mandates an arms embargo against Yugoslavia, but not all NATO members so far agree that oil--though essential for the tanks and armored personnel carriers of Yugoslav army and Serbian police in Kosovo--can be considered war materiel under the terms of the resolution.

Greece's opposition to a blockade stems from fears that the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy, through which maritime traffic coming from the Mediterranean has to pass to reach Yugoslavia, would be turned into a war zone, a European envoy said. Italy also has expressed doubts.

"It's simply too late," a French diplomat contended Monday. "Milosevic has shown he has had plenty of time to prepare for this war."

NATO officials also concede privately that a single 13,000-ton tanker offloading at Bar, in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, could supply the Yugoslav military in Kosovo for a whole month. Oil tankers flying the flag of Panama and other countries continue to call at Bar despite the Kosovo crisis, NATO diplomats say.

Instead of a sea blockade, other options include bombing Bar's oil unloading facilities or destroying pipelines inside Yugoslavia that link the country to the outside world, a NATO diplomat said. But attacking Bar could endanger Montenegro's beleaguered leadership, which is trying to resist Milosevic, and hurt its troubled economy.

The North Atlantic Council, the political wing of NATO, would have to consider which is more important: destroying the port facilities or keeping Montenegro on NATO's side, a NATO diplomat said.

Another tactic to limit Yugoslavia's oil supplies would be pressuring oil and shipping companies not to do business with Yugoslavia, which Washington considers to be unrealistic.

Some regional specialists charge that any form of embargo now would still be too little to stop Serbian action in Kosovo.

"The idea that interfering with his oil supplies will defeat Milosevic militarily strikes me as not appreciating the reality on the ground," said Ivo Daalder, a Balkans specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former National Security Council staff member in the early Clinton years. "We don't understand that he's done what he wants to do. If he has tanks with no oil in them, who cares? They're hunkering down. But that's all they need to do. They have physically achieved their objectives."

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