Dazed by losses, Slovenians still intent on freedom

June 30, 1991|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

LJUBLJANA, Yugoslavia -- Slovenia has paid a bloody pric for the independence it celebrated so passionately last Wednesday with church bells ringing and champagne flowing.

The pain today includes tragedies for families such as that of 26-year-old Edvard Peterkos. Four evenings ago, the sandy-haired young man celebrated independence with his 2 million countrymen in this place about the size of Maryland. A day later, he became one of the first victims of the Yugoslav army's drive to crush the republic's independence.

Called up with most of Slovenia's 70,000-strong territorial defense force, Mr. Peterkos had helped position buses, trucks and other heavy vehicles in the path of tanks heading toward the international airport here. On roads throughout the republic, similar scenes were taking place.

In Trzin, about eight miles from the airport, three tanks were stopped by the barricades.

In the early afternoon, two helicopters suddenly appeared out of TTC the clear sunny skies, ferrying troops in to free the tanks. A fierce battle broke out. One of the helicopters was shot down by a missile from a shoulder-held launcher. Several buses were blown up. Mr.Peterkos was killed by machine-gun fire. His friend, Danilo, broke down crying as he told the story.

The scenes of horror grew worse. By Friday morning, Yugoslav )) air force ORAO (Eagle) MiGs were being used. At Brnik airport outside Ljubljana, Slovenians stood in open-mouthed disbelief as four MiGs crisscrossed the airport, letting off machine-gun and cannon fire as they swooped down. Four commercial aircraft were damaged. Nine cars in the parking lot were reduced to twisted lumps of metal. Two Austrian photographers died.

The jets moved to free columns of tanks mired near the Austrian border. They screamed through the sky north of Maribor toward the crossing at Gornja Radgona, where civilians and territorial defense units had stopped a column of 17 tanks.

A group of journalists heading to Gornja Radgona was slowed down to a crawl and was guided along side roads and dirt tracks by helpful Slovenian militiamen clutching their Yugoslav-made Red Flag machine guns. Only they knew where to steer friendly cars on side roads, avoiding the barricades set up to block the army's advance.

Had we made our journey an hour later, we would have been at Gornja Radgona -- and could have been dead. The jets strafed a line of civilian cars waiting to cross the border nearby. Several people in the cars, many of them Turkish and Bulgarian guest workers on their way to Germany, are said to have died.

But despite the massive show of strength, Western diplomats and Slovenians were surprised at the poor planning of the Yugoslav forces -- and the success of the Slovenian forces.

"I was stunned that the federal army was so poorly organized," said Danilo Slivnik, a prominent Slovenian editor. "They just came in tankswithout food and water. When the tanks were surrounded, the soldiers became thirsty and hungry. In Maribor in particular, there were some almost insane actions by the local commander, who used rocket fire against one of the border posts, and the soldiers also were shooting indiscriminately in several cities in the area -- at houses, anything."

By Friday evening, the Yugoslav government announced that it was stopping its assaults since its objectives had been achieved. It claimed to have taken control of 17 border crossings with Austria, Italy and Hungary and to have blocked the remaining 11. But the horror was not over. Even as the cease-fire was being announced, sporadic firing continued.

Angered by the firing on non-military targets, Slovenian defense forces destroyed a column of 17 personnel carriers south of here Friday night. Yesterday morning, the situation remained tense in most of Slovenia, and eyewitnesses reported tanks mired north of Maribor.

All the main roads remained blocked by heavy vehicles of every description -- including garbage trucks and giant earth diggers. The vehicles clearly had been placed according to a prearranged and well-coordinated plan. Slovenia's territorial defense used radio stations for appeals to the population to set up barricades in various areas.

Ordinary people, while stunned by the violence, professed their determination to assert their independence. Between the barricades in the pretty, sun-drenched villages along the near-deserted roads, people were trying to go about their lives.

The scene had a surreal quality, evoking memories of films of the French countryside during the German occupation of World War II. Peasants tended their vines. A woman did her washing outside in a bucket of water.

But near scenes of fighting, the surface of life became less

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