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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Milosevic Defiant Over Cleanup of Danube

NOVI SAD, Yugoslavia -- The NATO bombs that crumpled the bridges of this riverside city did more than disrupt traffic. The bombs severed the Danube.

Now President Slobodan Milosevic's government is vowing that it will not clear the Danube, or allow the Europeans to do so, until the West rebuilds every one of the bridges destroyed during the war.

The Danube is not just a river. It is an artery through which flow 100 million tons of goods by barge, a crucial economichighway that, with the help of canals, connects the ports of Northern Europe through Germany all the way to Constanta, Romania, on the Black Sea.

But with three bridges here destroyed and another five disabled elsewhere, traffic down the Danube is blocked by debris and possibly unexploded ordnance. And so the Yugoslav president is holding yet another trump card in his hand.

"We didn't destroy the bridges," said Goran Matic, a government minister without portfolio who is close to Milosevic. "And so it is not up to us to rebuild them."

This week a team of European engineering experts came to inspect the damage. It is estimated that just to clear the river may cost $20 million. But it will cost much more before traffic can move again. The total price for rebuilding and repairing all eight bridges is estimated at up to $100 million.

"Let us be very clear," said Radisa Djordjevic, head of the Yugoslav agency for inland waterways and a member of the Danube Commission, which has members from the 11 nations that utilize the river. "Clearing the Danube without rebuilding our bridges will not happen."

European Union officials met Wednesday in Brussels to discuss assistance to Kosovo. Also in the air is the question of aid to Serbia, the domininant republic in Yugoslavia. But the United States is insisting that Serbia not get any help beyond humanitarian aid until Milosevic resigns or is pushed aside.

But there is tremendous pressure from European business interests to do something to open the Danube for traffic again. It is so important because so much of European and Balkan industry and infrastructure lies along the river's banks - rail yards, steel mills, oil refineries, cement plants, ship builders and petrochemical installations.

Djordjevic states that it is 14 times cheaper to ship by barge than by truck, and five times cheaper than by train. He calculates the raw cost of the Danube's closure through Yugoslavia at $1 billion a year.

Most of the bridges, as well as factories, destroyed by NATO bombardment were built with loans and grants from Europe and the World Bank. Goran Pitic, an analyst with the independent Economic Institute in Belgrade, said, "The infrastructure is, essentially, European infrastructure."

European companies participated in building the bridges, for example, and will be needed to rebuild them, as there are only three companies in Yugoslavia with the equipment and expertise to do the work. Pitic calculated that leaving the job to Yugoslav companies alone - assuming Yugoslavia had the money to pay for it, which it doesn't - would take 13 years.

The Milosevic government is insisting there is no time to waste for the Europeans to commit. Winter is coming, and with it comes ice in the Danube, which makes construction very difficult.

In the next month, Yugoslav engineers will begin to erect a pontoon bridge of floating barges to connect Novi Sad, which has been cut in half after all its bridges were destroyed.

Now, the citizens of Novi Sad pass between the northern and southern banks of the Danube on a barge pushed across the river by a Yugoslav navy tugboat.

The barge ride is free. Independent water taxis also make the trip. The small boats charge 5 dinars a trip, the equivalent of 50 cents at the official exchange rate. It is sign of how desperately poor many Serbians are becoming that they opt for the barge and its long lines.

Milovan Krstajic, a manager of Yugoslav bridge building company Mostogradnja, said his company will soon begin to erect their pontoon bridge. "When that goes up," Krstajic said. "Nothing will pass on the Danube."

Asked when barge traffic will again resume on the river, Krstajic shrugged.

"That's not our problem," he said.