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NATO, Yugoslav ships in showdown

NAPLES, Italy, May 1 -- NATO air and sea forces were Sunday involved in a confrontation with three Yugoslav Navy vessels attempting to assist a Maltese-registered tanker in flouting the United Nations trade embargo, a NATO spokesman said.

Italian Tornado fighters were scrambled from Gioia Del Colle Air Base in southern Italy to provide air cover in the first such maritime showdown in the Adriatic Sea since the U.N. began enforcing its embargo against the rump Yugoslav republic of Serbia and Montenegro.

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A spokesman for NATO's southern Europe command said the Maltese tanker Lido II, carrying 45,000 tons of fuel oil, appeared to have deliberately flooded its engine room in order to justify entering the territorial waters of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

No shots were fired during the incident but the spokesman said a Yugoslav patrol boat nearly caused a collision by passing close under the bow of the British frigate HMS Chatham.

Two Yugoslav patrol boats and a Yugoslav frigate approached the tanker at speed after it had been boarded by a party from a Dutch frigate and ordered to alter course.

Warships from six NATO countries responded to the challenge and the Yugoslav vessels headed back into their territorial waters after the arrival of the Tornados overhead.

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The Dutch boarding party, joined later by technicians from HMS Chatham who were put on board to stop the flooding, said the tanker's mainly Russian crew had proved uncooperative and they had found seven men, who claimed to be Yugoslavs, hiding on the vessel.

The Lido was due to be turned over to the Italian authorities for further investigation of the apparent attempt to violate the U.N. embargo.

A total of 31,400 ships have been challenged in a year-long operation to enforce the embargo, which NATO says no ship has yet successfully violated.

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