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Reservists' row may test mettle of Yugoslav Army

Army cracks down on protests about reservists' involvement in Kosovo.

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Protests by thousands of Army reservists unwilling to return to Kosovo are testing the Yugoslav Army's ability to mobilize effectively and impose discipline over a force made up largely of reservists, analysts in Belgrade say.

The demonstrations in the southern Serbian towns of Krusevac, Aleksandrovac, Cacak, and Prokuplje - the first of their kind since the start of NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia - have provoked a brutal reaction by local police forces, with hundreds of arrests reported yesterday alone.

The protests were started over a week ago by the mothers and wives of an estimated 4,000 Army reservists deployed in Kosovo. Despite early indications that the demonstrations would die down, they have grown in intensity - with Krusevac reportedly sealed off by the police on Tuesday, a day after the town's 2,000 reservists were ordered back to Kosovo under penalty of court-martial.

In Krusevac, Momcilo Stevanovic, an opposition party member, says: "The mothers of the soldiers that are still in Kosovo are preparing to go to Kosovo to bring their sons back. For this reason the police have closed off the town. Inside the town, they are breaking off groups of more than two or three people."

According to a source in Aleksandrovac who did not want to be named, what prompted the mothers to action was the belief that their sons' lives were being risked in vain. "The mothers are saying: Why should my son sit under the bombs?" she says.

The Yugoslav Army has had a history of desertion dating back to 1991, when thousands of reservists abandoned the front during the war in Croatia and, in one famous episode, actually walked back to Serbia from the front line in Vukovar.

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