Stray dog lone sentry for U.S. in Belgrade

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- It is only a matter of time before American diplomats return to Yugoslavia. And when they get here, Yoka will be waiting.

Yoka, a cocoa-colored, short-haired mutt, has been guarding the U.S. ambassador's residence in Belgrade, patrolling the compound's rusting iron fence. For 18 months, she's been the lone sentry—staying put long after diplomats and U.S. Marine guards bugged out.

''She appeared immediately after the Americans left and has stayed there through the NATO bombing and everything else that has happened,'' said neighbor Milica Pandurovic.

Pandurovic, a retired English teacher who lives just down the street, fed Yoka even though other neighbors disapproved.

People were so furious at NATO during the 78-day bombing campaign they were ready to take out their anger on anything that smacked of America—even a dog who made her home at the U.S. embassy in the city's exclusive Dedinje neighborhood.

The crowds taunted the protective pooch, normally a friendly, playful little dog. Somebody managed to hit her with a rock, breaking a front right paw and leaving her with a permanent limp.

Still, the only American presence in Yugoslavia stood firm, running around the house as U.S. bombers screamed overhead, trying to stop the elegant residence from getting hit by cruise missiles.

Other embassy buildings elsewhere in the city suffered extensive damage as mobs set fires and ransacked the structures. Only the ambassador's house escaped relatively unscathed.

No one really knows whom Yoka belongs to. When diplomats fled the capital before the bombing campaign launched against Slobodan Milosevic's policies in the southern province of Kosovo, they took everything with them.

Pandurevic thinks Yoka might be a stray that began frequenting the mansion when former U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmermann served here during the early 1990s. Zimmermann's wife, Teeny, was known to be an animal lover who often fed strays. Yoka, who is slightly gray around the snout, seems to be the right age for that era.

Pandurevic doesn't mind supplying the extra dog food, but is hoping that with the election of President Vojislav Kostunica, relations with the United States will improve—and that another ambassador will return to the mansion tucked among stately trees and a sprawling garden.

President Clinton and Kostunica spoke on the phone Sunday, and the State Department on Tuesday announced that the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade will be reopened promptly.

That could mean that Yoka will have a new master at the house.

At the moment, though, U.S. officials who insist on anonymity are making no promises.

''I have no idea,'' one official said. ''This is the first I've heard of the dog.''