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Belgrade Aghast as Refugees Flood In

Serbia's shaky economy may have to absorb 100,000 people

THE Serbs that President Slobodan Milosevic exhorted to rise up and fight against Croatia four years ago are coming to visit him - by the thousands.

On the main road south of Serbia's capital, tractors and cars filled with furniture, bicycles, and refugees are slowly arriving from the fallen Krajina. Belgrade residents watch from overpasses, some searching for lost family members. Others are dreading another stream of refugees descending on a once-cosmopolitan city that has been devastated by punishing United Nations sanctions.

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''How many of them are in Belgrade? Are they living in the streets?'' Alexandra Bozic, an art student at Belgrade University asked with a disgusted look on her face. ''If we weren't going to protect them now, then why did we have a war in the beginning?''

As more than 150,000 refugees from the Krajina - the western region of Croatia that the government just took from rebel Serbs - stream toward Serbia, Mr. Milosevic is walking a political tightrope. Sympathy for the Krajina Serbs, and anger at Milosevic for not defending them, is running high among nationalists and tens of thousands of Serb refugees from Bosnia and Croatia already in Belgrade.

But the sudden arrival of more than 100,000 refugees could cause Serbia's tepid economy - already hurt by UN economic sanctions imposed for fueling the Balkan war - to collapse, according to Western aid officials. Refugees who have already arrived here say that the majority of Serbs fleeing the fallen Krajina want to build new lives in Serbia, not Serb-held parts of Bosnia already ''ethnically cleansed'' of Muslims and Croats.

Milosevic may have to either seal the border, risking the rage of nationalists and refugees here, or accept the refugees, risking the collapse of the economy and wrath of Serbia natives.

''I am horrified that Milosevic didn't help them,'' says Zelka Sedlan, one of dozens of people frantically searching lists in front of the International Red Cross Building here for news of her parents. ''There should have been some kind of agreement, something. [Milosevic] didn't do anything.''

Rebel Serbs lose out

The irony of Serbs from the Krajina, the first group that Milosevic urged to rebel, seize land, and join Serbia proper to form a ''Greater Serbia,'' is apparent to many here. Four years later, Milosevic has only Eastern Slavonia, the one remaining Serb-held enclave in Croatia, to show for a war that spread to neighboring Bosnia, killed 200,000 there, displaced about 2 million people, and turned Serbs into international pariahs.

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Serbian nationalist groups were scheduled to hold a rally last night in downtown Belgrade to organize opposition to Milosevic. In an open letter issued Tuesday, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic called Milosevic ''treasonous'' for allowing the Krajina to fall.

Milosevic, in part to bolster his domestic political standing and to counter a possible Croat offensive, deployed an armored division near Eastern Slavonia.

Western observers say Milosevic is trying to convince Serbs here that he had to let the Krajina fall, but will defend oil- and agriculture-rich Eastern Slavonia, which borders Serbia.

But Belgrade residents expressed skepticism about Milosevic's intentions. Several questioned why the war was fought and were horrified by the plight of Serb refugees.

''The price for a ride from Krajina to Serbia was $750 Monday; it was $1,500 Tuesday,'' says a Belgrade resident who visited Bosnia yesterday. ''It was the same picture as it was before when the Muslim and Croats [were ethnically cleansed]. I don't understand it. Muslims, Croats, Serbs - we are all the same people.''

Talk of the fall

Refugees from the fallen Krajina, described the chaotic fall of their self-declared capital of Knin and bitterly complained about Milosevic not coming to their aid. Krajina military commanders were furious at Bosnian Serb forces for allowing a surprise Croatian offensive in neighboring Bosnia to cut the only remaining supply route to Knin.

Petar Popovic, director of government-run Radio Knin, said in an interview that the Krajina Serb leadership was crushed when Milosevic issued only a mild rebuke of the Croat offensive after it was launched early Friday morning.

''We had great hopes that Belgrade would at least threaten [the Croats],'' said Mr. Popovic, who was deeply shaken when he arrived in Belgrade last night. ''That was the only hope of stopping the massacre.''

Western and Yugoslav aid officials say they can provide only temporary aid to the 100,000 expected refugees. Settling the refugees in Eastern Slavonia could provoke a war with Croatia. And how Milosevic will deal with the humanitarian and political catastrophe is unclear.

''Maybe the Croatian people wouldn't hate [us Serbs] so much if there hadn't been a war,'' art student Bozic says. ''Now, it's impossible for us to live together.''

Serb Leader Must Deal With Tide of Refugees

'If we weren't going to protect them [the Krajina Serbs] now, then why did we have a war in the beginning?'

- Student at Belgrade University

ARMY OF REFUGEES: A column of Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia streams toward Belgrade on Tuesday. More than 150,000 Serb refugees have fled since the Croatian Army launched its successful offensive last weekend that retook territories held by rebel Serbs.


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