CEOL - Government-Run Serb Towns Join Bid For EU Fuel Aid

BELGRADE, Nov 10, 1999 -- (Reuters) Thirty Serbian towns - many of them controlled by the ruling Socialist Party - are seeking help from an EU scheme to provide heating oil to ease winter hardships and boost democracy in the sanctions-hit republic.

The European Union's Energy for Democracy scheme is intended to help opposition-run towns cope with severe fuel shortages as winter approaches.

But Serbian groups backing the plan - the Association of Free Towns and the G17 group of independent economists - said on Tuesday that Socialist Party-controlled municipalities should also be included.

"Sixteen opposition-run towns have already submitted their requirements. Fourteen towns controlled by the ruling Socialists have also applied but without complete documentation. It would be ideal if all 30 towns took part," said Miroljub Labus, chairman of a G17 arm supervising the fuel delivery scheme.

"The day when the first tanker truck with fuel from the European Union crosses the border we will immediately send new requests to the EU," Labus told a news conference.

Serbian organizers said the first deliveries were expected in two weeks in two pilot towns, Nis and Pirot. Several Western countries appeared to be ready to provide other types of aid, they said.

The Serbian government has said it will control distribution of the fuel, a stand that seemed at odds with the EU's insistence on independent supervision to ensure shipments went to the right destination.

Serbia, whose two oil refineries were seriously damaged and one-third of its power grid destroyed in NATO's 11-week bombing which ended in June, is subject to an EU oil embargo.

Norwegian fuel for schools

"Within five to six days we will sign a memorandum of understanding in Brussels. The first shipments are to begin five or six days after that," said Pirot mayor Tomislav Panajotovic, speaking after talks with an EU official.

Pirot and Nis have been randomly selected for the pilot stage to make sure abuses are impossible before the project expands to other opposition-run towns in the republic.

Under the EU scheme, the first heating oil shipment will come via Bulgaria, and Norway will then send oil to heat schools in two other towns, Cacak and Uzice.

"We wish to thank the Norwegian government for securing an urgent delivery of 375,000 litres of heating fuel for eight schools in Cacak and one in Uzice," Labus said.

The United States and other countries involved in Balkan reconstruction after the Kosovo conflict have ruled out all but emergency aid while President Slobodan Milosevic stays in power.

But local media have reported that the West has modified its stance over the past week and decided to permit deliveries of other aid from EU towns to Serbian towns, by-passing Milosevic government institutions.

Economists seek further aid

Besides the fuel plan, the G17 is trying to secure aid in the form of building materials for towns damaged by NATO bombing and help for local media. The aid is expected by the year end. Infrastructure projects will be launched next year, Labus said.

Should the EU for any reason delay or block the aid, four European countries have promised to provide the assistance on a bilateral basis, Labus said, but without naming them.

The G17 has also initiated a plan under which Serbian towns would start receiving aid directly from towns all over Europe and Canada, as sanctioned by the EU.

"We have prepared town-to-town assistance for 16 Serbian towns, including those run by the Socialists. And we have a way of preventing abuses," G17 coordinator Mladjan Dinkic said.

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