Attacking economic lifeblood of Serbia

Billowing smoke and scorched walls mark ground zero

War In Yugoslavia

April 19, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PANCEVO, Yugoslavia -- This is what ground zero of NATO's air war against Serbia's industrial heart looks like:

Balls of fire and plumes of blue-gray smoke rise from a smoldering oil storage depot, darkening the skies of this area along the Danube River on the northern outskirts of Belgrade.

Scorched concrete outer walls and the embers of a small fire are among the remnants of the nitrogen fertilizer plant that no longer has windows or a roof.

The air is filled with an acrid, chemical odor that is so noxious, visitors place handkerchiefs over their faces to try to stop the burning in their throats.

"I'm astonished someone had the idea to do this," Mirlan Dzindo, the general manager of Pancevo's chemical industry, said yesterday to journalists who were escorted to the facility by Yugoslav military press officers.

"The sickness of the people [commanding] the planes is enormous," he said. "It is the wish of them to make our people ill, to poison them."

NATO's air campaign is apparently taking its toll on Yugoslavia's economy and its environment as officials tally the costs of war.

With NATO targeting oil refineries here and in Novi Sad, gasoline is becoming a precious commodity for consumers, and presumably for the Yugoslav military. Bridges along the Danube have been smashed, snarling traffic across a vital industrial river that snakes through central Europe.

Factories have also been damaged in recent weeks, leaving thousands unemployed and inflicting billions of dollars of damage. One of the top targets has been the Zastava Kragujevac factory, which produces cars and apparently weapons.

"The destruction of Yugoslavia's industrial plants and communication facilities has reduced Yugoslavia's economy to rubble, apart from the food industry," the Belgrade-based VIP Daily News Report said last week. But local news reports asserted that the economy could function, despite the war.

An economic squeeze

The government faces a squeeze, trying to finance the war effort while coming up with payments for pensioners, health workers, teachers and state-owned companies destroyed in the bombing. Raising taxes on cigarettes and gas, and printing more money, are among the financial bailout options that have been floated.

The attacks from the air continue, offering the economy little breathing space.

With its oil depot surrounded by petrochemical facilities that stretch across the plain, Pancevo has emerged as a prime target of NATO warplanes and missiles.

When bombs strike at night, the thuds can be heard for miles. Smoke billows into the sky.

The refinery was not the only target. Local officials said attacks occurred three times over two nights against a fertilizer factory, said to be the largest in the Balkans.

"We didn't accept in our first bad dreams that they could attack such a factory," Dzindo said, adding that the bombing endangered food supplies for Yugoslav citizens.

Asked if the factory was used to make chemical weapons, Dzindo said, "Absolutely not."

"The factory is definitely not a military target," he said.

Officials here contend that the bombing campaign is threatening to trigger a Balkan environmental catastrophe, polluting the Danube and poisoning the air.

"NATO aggressions are endangering the environment, the air, the water, the land," said Dragoljub Jelovic, a government ecological minister. "If this goes on like this, there will be nothing good in the future. The western part of Europe will be in more danger than we are."

A lucky break

They claimed the attack on the oil depot and fertilizer factory may have unleashed a toxic cocktail into the air, which was dissipated by the breezes over Belgrade.

They also said that tons of ethylene dichloride, a carcinogen, were dumped into the Danube and may take years to break down. The river has oil slicks from the bombing campaign.

None of the claims could be independently confirmed.

"At the moment, there is not a public health danger," said Dr. Slobodan Tosovic, who briefed the press. "But, if the wind had not been on our side "

Jelovic said he wanted to alert the world to the possible environmental danger. As he spoke, dark clouds gathered outside, lightning bolts streaked, and rain poured.

"Even the sky above is crying," he said.

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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