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Border Monitors On Serbian Frontier Report Success

BOSNIAN Serb smugglers, brooding over cups of Turkish coffee at a roadside cafe, grumble as Yugoslav customs officers clamber onto trucks and rummage through cars. ``We'll never get anything past this lot - we might as well give up,'' says one of the black marketeers.

Smugglers' activities at the Sremska Raca border crossing seem to have ground to a halt since Belgrade imposed a blockade on the Bosnian Serbs more than a month ago to pressure them into accepting the international peace plan.

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The inspections have been stepped up with the arrival of international monitors to verify that the commercial and military embargo is genuine before the United Nations eases sanctions imposed against Belgrade in 1992 for helping the Bosnian Serbs in their fight against the Muslim-led government of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

United Nations Security Council members were presented a positive report by the monitors on Oct. 3, and an easing of sanctions allowing Belgrade to open its airport and participate in sporting and cultural events is expected to take effect Oct. 5.

The report, forwarded by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said civilian monitors have visited all parts of the border ``including, in the last few days, those areas reserved for the military, and have covered all significant roads crossing the border by day and night.''

Based on border observations and in the absence of any contrary information from the air, the report concluded that Belgrade was ``meeting its commitment to close the border between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [Serbia and Montenegro] and the areas of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina under the control of the Bosnian Serb forces,'' Reuters reported Oct. 4.

But the mission has been denounced by some as a token force brought in to simply rubber-stamp the blockade and enable the international community to reward Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for cutting off his former prots.

Hundreds of vehicles rumble across the Sremska Raca border post - the main crossing on the Drina River - every day, making it a top priority for the monitors who must spread themselves very thinly. About 100 observers patrol the 370-mile frontier that winds its way through river valleys and rugged mountains.

For days, journalists scoured the border for evidence of the inspectors, only to discover that most of them were picking through socks and cans in Red Cross warehouses on the outskirts of Belgrade. In fact, they were keeping a low profile, while nationalists opposed to the blockade in Serbia ranted.

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But when the protests subsided, the observers set off for the frontier. At the same time, it emerged that they had far greater powers, such as the right to stop and search vehicles, than they had previously let on. And Mr. Milosevic has ordered the nighttime closure of all but the Sremska Raca crossing point, where monitors are deployed round-the-clock.

Fears of a hostile reception have proved unfounded, with observers experiencing few obstacles as they go about their work.

But privately, customs officials and border police express unease and bitter resentment at having to enforce the blockade. ``It's the toughest thing I've ever had to do in my life. Some of my family are over there. They're suffering because of me,'' said a policeman at the crossing point.

Mindful of local sensibilities, the monitors tread carefully - too carefully, according to Washington. Despite the mission's repeated insistence that, from what it has seen, the blockade is holding, United States Secretary of Defense William Perry insisted on Sept. 30 that it was leaking.

``We have incomplete reports that indicate that that's been partially but not fully complied with ... certainly not a complete stoppage,'' Mr. Perry said after a NATO meeting in Seville, Spain.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe swiftly countered the charges, saying Paris believed the border embargo was being honored, and added that ``the Pentagon was not in charge of verifying'' violations.

Western diplomats in Belgrade believe the blockade is holding. ``The days when Bosnian Serb trucks rolled up at arms dumps outside the city are over,'' one military attache says.

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