Prague, June 19 (RFE/RL) - NATO and the 10-nation Western European Union (WEU) today suspended their three-year-old joint naval blockade in the Adriatic.
The move follows the United Nations decision yesterday to lift its nearly five-year-old arms embargo on the former Yugoslav republics.
In a joint statement, NATO and the WEU said they would "no longer challenge, board or divert ships in the Adriatic" to prevent arms shipments into the former Yugoslav republics. However, the statement added that the naval operations had merely been suspended and could be restarted if economic sanctions are reimposed.
While the arms embargo has been ended, economic sanctions against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and against the Bosnian Serbs have only been suspended.
The United States has recently threatened Belgrade with fresh economic sanctions unless it takes steps to send indicted war criminals to the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. Among those indicted are Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb army commander General Ratko Mladic.
The end of the arms embargo was made possible by the signing in Florence Italy last week of an arms control agreement between the former Yugoslav republics. That agreement limits the number of heavy weapons in the region -- including tanks, artillery over 75mm, armored vehicles, combat aircraft and attack helicopters.
The move also was conditioned upon favorable reports by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Those reports were transmitted to the Security Council by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Some diplomats said the lifting of the embargo would mean countries from the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia, could legally export some armaments, such as tanks.
In Zagreb yesterday, following the signing of a joint military cooperation agreement with Bulgaria, Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak said it is no secret that Croatia wants to buy armor-piercing missiles -- possibly produced in Bulgaria. The Croatian news agency HINA quoted Susak as saying that the lifting of the arms embargo would make such deals possible.
In Ljubljana, Slovenian Defense Minister Jelko Kacin said the developments mark the end of what he called "an unjust and impossible situation" for his country. Slovenia was the first state to secede from Yugoslavia and has since joined NATO's Partnership for Peace Program.
The embargo was imposed in September 1991 after fighting erupted when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia. It soon became the object of diplomatic disputes at the United Nations.
The United States and Muslim countries had called for its lifting, arguing that it unfairly restricted Bosnia-Herzegovina's right to self-defense. The Muslim-led Bosnian government complained that the embargo hurt them more than rebel Serbs who received weapons surreptitiously from Belgrade.
Nevertheless, the Security Council refused to lift the embargo saying that without a peace agreement, any end to the controls would intensify the fighting.
Eventually, Iran and other nations clandestinely supplied arms to Bosnian army, and there are widespread reports that Washington turned a blind eye to the shipments.
Fearing the safety of their peacekeepers serving under the aegis of the United Nations, Britain and France also opposed an end to the embargo while the fighting raged on.
The Security Council decided last November that the arms embargo would be lifted progressively during the six-month period after the Dayton Peace Accords took effect.