The NATO bombs that crumpled the bridges of this Danube River city did more than disrupt road traffic; they severed the river.

Now the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is vowing that it will not clear the waterway, or allow other European countries to do so, until the West rebuilds every one of the bridges destroyed during the Kosovo war.

The Danube is not just a river; it is a continental artery through which 100 million tons of goods flow by barge. It is a crucial economic passageway that, with the help of canals, connects the ports of Northern Europe through Germany all the way to Sulina, Romania, on the Black Sea.

But with three bridges destroyed here and another five disabled elsewhere, the Danube is blocked by debris and possibly unexploded ordnance. Thus, Milosevic has yet another trump card to play.

"We didn't destroy the bridges," said Goran Matic, a government minister without portfolio who is close to Milosevic, "and so it is not up to us to rebuild them."

This week, a team of European engineering experts came to inspect the damage. It is estimated that just to clear the river may cost $20 million, but it will cost much, much more before road traffic can move across the bridges again. The total price for rebuilding and repairing all eight is estimated at up to $100 million.

"Let us be very clear," said Radisa Djordjevic, head of the Yugoslav agency for inland waterways and a member of the multinational Danube Commission, which has members from the 11 nations that use the river. "Clearing the Danube without rebuilding our bridges will not happen."

European Union officials met yesterday in Brussels to discuss assistance to war-ravaged Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian-majority province of Serbia that is now occupied by NATO peacekeeping troops. Also in the air is the question of aid to Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, but the United States has insisted that Serbia will get nothing beyond humanitarian assistance until Milosevic resigns or is forced out.

But there is tremendous pressure from European business interests to do something to reopen the Danube to barge traffic. It is so important because so much of European and Balkan industry and infrastructure lies along the river's banks--rail yards, steel mills, oil refineries, cement plants, ship builders and petrochemical installations.

Many materials, such as sand or cement, are so bulky they must move by barge. One barge can carry, at very low cost, as much as 100 trucks. Djordjevic says it is 14 times cheaper to carry goods by barge than by truck and five times cheaper than by train. He calculates the raw cost to industry of the Danube's closure through Yugoslavia at $1 billion a year.

"I cannot tell you how many phone calls I have been getting," said one Western diplomat in Belgrade. "The business community in Europe could give a damn about Milosevic. What they want to talk about is the Danube."

Most the bridges--and factories--destroyed by NATO bombardment were built with loans and grants from Europe and the World Bank. "The infrastructure is, essentially, European infrastructure," said Goran Pitic, an analyst with the independent Economic Institute in Belgrade.

Moreover, European companies played a large role in building the bridges and will be needed to rebuild them, as there are only three companies in Yugoslavia with the equipment and expertise to tackle any such project. Pitic calculated that leaving the job to Yugoslav firms alone--assuming Yugoslavia had the money to pay for it, which it does not--would take 13 years.

The Milosevic government says that the Europeans have no time to waste and must commit now. Winter is coming, and with it comes ice on the Danube, which hinders construction. In the next month, Yugoslav engineers will begin to erect a floating pontoon span to connect the northern and southern banks of the river at Novi Sad, which has been split in two by the loss of its bridges.

Now, city residents must cross the river on a barge pushed by a Yugoslav navy tugboat. It is an indignity that rankles the citizens here, who say it makes them feel like cattle. After waiting up to an hour to board, they crowd onto the barge in the hot sun; then, once the barge begins its 10-minute voyage, the Yugoslav national anthem is played over loud speakers.

Private water taxis also make the trip, but they charge the equivalent of 50 cents per crossing. It is sign of how desperately poor many Serbs have become that they opt for the free barge and its long lines.

Milovan Krstajic, a manager of the Yugoslav bridge building company Mostogradnja, said his firm will soon begin work on the pontoon bridge, which will rest on the surface of the waterway. "When that goes up," Krstajic said. "Nothing will pass on the Danube."

Asked when barge traffic will resume on the river, Krstajic shrugged. "That's not our problem," he said.