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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Drops Serb Oil Blockade

NATO has backed away from using force to block ships from ferrying oil to Yugoslavia and instead plans to seek wider voluntary compliance with an embargo imposed by the United States and its European allies, officials said over the weekend.

The move represents a setback for the United States, which had pushed to allow alliance warships to take military action against tankers defying the embargo. But it should please Russia, where the political leadership has been incensed by U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen's comment that vessels from any country shipping oil to Serbia would face "serious consequences" f including military force by NATO warships.

NATO leaders agreed to impose a ban on oil shipments during their summit meeting in Washington two weeks ago and announced a program to "visit and search" ships suspected of violating the ban.

That ban has been attacked by Russians from Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to top Yabloko party member and Duma Deputy Vladimir Lukin.

Russia had been supplying 80,000 metric tons of oil a month to Yugoslavia f a tiny sum for the Russian market, but significant for Yugoslavia f via pipelines running through Hungary and Slovakia. But Russia halted all shipments when bombing began March 24, the Fuel and Energy Ministry reported last month f a decision that reflects the judgment of private oil companies that see Yugoslavia as a nonpayments risk.

Even so, the Kremlin has bristled at the idea of imposing restrictions on Russian oil companies to please the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

A senior Pentagon official said that some of the urgency for NATO enforcement action eased last week as Yugoslav ships instituted their own blockade of Montenegrin ports f in an apparent effort to weaken the government of President Milo Djukanovic, who has been sharply critical of the Yugoslav federation president, Slobodan Milosevic.

Still, the United States had strongly endorsed a request by General Wesley Clark, NATO's top commander, to enforce the alliance ban by firing on ships that refused to comply.

The initiative foundered over concerns raised by France and other NATO governments about the legality of forcibly interdicting tankers in the absence of a formal declaration of war against Yugoslavia or a United Nations resolution.

With the dispute unresolved, NATO authorities are said to be planning a limited operation that would monitor at least those ships flying the flags of countries that have agreed to observe the embargo. At the same time, officials said, efforts will be made to widen the list of complying nations through diplomatic pressure.

Such nations as Cyprus and Malta, whose flags have been on some ships delivering petroleum to Yugoslavia, might be pressed to comply as associate members of the European Union, officials said. Similarly, some major oil producers are likely to be pursued through their membership in the Organization of Islamic Countries, which has been sensitive to the plight of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

"You get these major institutions to sign up, or blocs of countries to sign up, and that helps you go to still others and say, look, we want you to play ball with us here, or people will be annoyed with you," a senior NATO official said.