CEOL - US rejects YU opposition call to end sanctions

BERLIN, Dec 18, 1999 -- (Reuters) U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright turned down appeals from Yugoslav opposition leaders on Friday to lift Western sanctions against Belgrade, saying free elections must be held first.

Speaking after meeting Serbian opposition leaders and Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, Albright restated Washington's determination not to lift the embargo on air flights and oil as long as Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic holds on to power.

"I can understand why they (the opposition leaders) are voicing these ideas," Albright told a news conference.

"We have said we are ready to suspend oil and flight bans on the holding of free and fair elections. We consider this a very important way of indicating that we are ready to integrate a freely elected Yugoslavia into a stable Balkans."

Leaders of the Serbian democratic opposition, including Zoran Djindjic, leader of the pro-western Democratic Party, and Vuk Draskovic, head of the nationalist Serbian Renewal Movement, said the sanctions were counterproductive.

They said the embargo was forcing Serbia, already cut off from the outside world in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, ever deeper into isolation.

Serbia has been subject to various international sanctions since 1992 over its role in a series of Balkan wars.

Sanctions Turning Serbia Into A "Prison"

"The sanctions are against the people of Serbia and are a Western-built wall transforming our state into a prison," Draskovic told reporters.

Djindjic, who has a tense relationship with Draskovic, also called on the West to provide more help in the opposition movement's push to oust Milosevic from power by peaceful means.

"The West would help if it lifted sanctions," he told Reuters in an interview. "Otherwise the people say that the West does not respect us because it does not follow our requests."

Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen, representing the EU presidency, said it was "in the hands of the people" to fulfil the preconditions for lifting the blockade.

Europe has taken a less firm line on the sanctions than Washington, with one German government source saying that Berlin supported their easing.

But the source ruled out an early unilateral move by Europe to lift sanctions, saying that could only happen in step with the United States.

Albright praised Djukanovic for tiny Montenegro's democratic stand against threats from Serbia and said that although economic sanctions would remain in force, the U.S. would step up humanitarian aid efforts.

Djukanovic said: "Today, Montenegro is facing great repression because Milosevic correctly identifies that the threat to his regime is coming from Montenegro.

"I hope he is right in his fears. Despite his resistance, we are stepping down the road to democracy."

Both Albright and Halonen said that more fuel would be sent by the West to towns controlled by pro-democracy forces under the "Energy for Democracy" program.

Albright described the talks, which were also attended by Dragoljub Micunovic of the small Democratic Center party and Zarko Korac of the Alliance of Democratic Parties, as the beginning of a "new phase" in bringing democracy to Yugoslavia.

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