A NATO missile slammed into the top floor of the five-story government headquarters in this provincial capital early this morning, leaving a gaping hole in the wall and piles of shattered glass all over the building. A few feet higher and it would have hit an apartment building on the other side of the road.
Although the Danube River city of Novi Sad is 300 miles from Kosovo's capital, Pristina, and has an altogether different historical and cultural heritage, it has borne what seems like a disproportionate share of NATO bombing. Many of its bridges and factories have been destroyed by NATO warplanes, along with the country's second-largest oil refinery and the philosophy department building of Novi Sad University.
The Yugoslav army brought foreign journalists to Novi Sad today to view the damage to the government building, the city's best-known landmark after the old Varazdin Bridge across the Danube, which was destroyed at the beginning of the bombing campaign.
The attack on the government building was believed to be the first time NATO has targeted an administrative building with no readily apparent military significance. Residents said they are mystified about why Novi Sad, Yugoslavia's second-largest city with a population of 400,000, should have been singled out for so much attention.
"This the height of madness," said Bozko Perasovic, head of the government of Vojvodina -- a largely agricultural, ethnically diverse province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, sandwiched between the Danube and Hungary. "This building had no connection at all with the army."
There was no immediate account from NATO of its motive in bombing the building. Previously, the alliance has said it struck bridges over the Danube and elsewhere because Yugoslavia's transportation network is a military target and hit the oil refinery to deprive the armed forces of fuel.
Another reason for attacking targets in Novi Sad may be strategic, according to foreign observers here. By cutting the Danube bridges, NATO can effectively isolate Vojvodina from the rest of Serbia, which is largely mountainous. If NATO were to mount a full-scale invasion of Yugoslavia, the plains of Vojvodina might be an easy point of entry.
In addition, NATO strategists may view Vojvodina as a potential political trouble spot for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, given the region's complex ethnic makeup. More than half its residents are Serbs, but it has a 17 percent ethnic Hungarian minority and smaller numbers of Croats, Slovaks and other ethnic groups.
Until 1989, Vojvodina and Kosovo were autonomous regions of Serbia, but Milosevic -- then president of Serbia -- stripped away that autonomy as part of his drive to solidify his political power. Vojvodina's ethnic Hungarians have traditionally opposed Milosevic, even though they have taken care to express their opposition in a less confrontational manner than the Kosovo Albanians, many of whom back a separatist guerrilla army.
Until 1918, Vojvodina was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the region retains a more central European flavor than the rest of Serbia, which had been an outpost of the Ottoman Empire for most of the preceding five centuries. The people of Vojvodina have the reputation of being more stolid and industrious than their comparatively hot-spirited neighbors to the south.
The overnight attack on the government headquarters here effectively destroyed half the building. This morning, government workers were busy removing computer equipment, files and even a bust of Marshal Tito, the founder of communist Yugoslavia in 1945, from the glass-strewn hallways.
A woman who worked in the social welfare section, on the fourth floor of the building and directly below the point of entry of the missile, said she had lost most of her files.
At the Varazdin Bridge, which has collapsed into the Danube, city residents were lining up for a ferry across the river. "It's like the Middle Ages here," laughed a student who gave her name only as Vesna. "When they bombed the bridge, they also cut our water supply for two weeks."
A second span, Freedom Bridge, was bombed a few days later, leaving only one still functioning. Hundreds of ships and river barges are reported to be stymied in Romania, Germany and Austria, unable to navigate the Danube.
NATO planes have repeatedly bombed the Novi Sad refinery, which had a production capacity of 60,000 barrels of oil a day, as well as a refinery at Pancevo near Belgrade, with a capacity of 100,000 barrels a day. Over the long term, the destruction of Yugoslavia's two largest refineries could have a serious impact on the fuel supply, even though Yugoslavia is still believed to be importing oil through the Montenegrin port of Bar. The United States reportedly is looking for ways to mount a blockade of Bar.
Lines at gasoline stations in Novi Sad, Belgrade and other cities have grown in recent days, with motorists limited to 10 gallons a month. Motor traffic between cities has trickled to a standstill, but there is little evidence that the tight fuel supply is hampering military operations in Kosovo.
NATO has made Vojvodina a primary target of its leafleting campaign, dropping hundreds of thousands assuring the population that the bombing campaign is aimed at the Belgrade regime, not them. "It was typical propaganda," said a student.
Not all Novi Sad residents seemed eager to rally around the government in resisting a NATO invasion. One student who was out for a walk along the Danube with his girlfriend said he would go into hiding if called up by the army as part of a general mobilization.
"I don't agree with the policies of the regime," he said. "I did my military service in Kosovo, and I saw what was going on there. The government is responsible for what is happening there as much as the Albanians."
CAPTION: A Yugoslav soldier helps an elderly woman negotiate stairs to wait for a ferry across the Danube River at Novi Sad, where NATO has destroyed two bridges.
CAPTION: Employees remove files and office equipment from the headquarters of the Vojvodina provincial government after a NATO missile hit the top floor.