Croats' attack on Serbs derails Yugoslav talks

January 25, 1993|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,Los Angeles Times

GENEVA -- A raging battle between Serbs and Croats in a United Nations-protected area near the Adriatic Sea derailed Western-mediated peace talks in Geneva yesterday and threatened to plunge the remains of Yugoslavia into a fiercer and deadlier phase of war.

In violation of a promise to halt a 3-day-old military aggression, Croatian government troops infiltrated several miles into Serb-occupied territory near the coast and continued to fight along a 65-mile front.

The incursion and mounting casualties triggered international condemnation of the Zagreb leadership and provided Serbian nationalists from throughout the shattered Balkans a pretext for distracting Western mediators in Geneva from a settlement of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina that few expect to be to the Serbs' liking.

Rather than negotiating with the leaders of ravaged Bosnia over the borders for a forced ethnic division, the U.N. mediator, Cyrus R. Vance, and his European Community partner, Lord Owen, spent the day trying to ward off Serbian threats of a massive escalation.

"We urged the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian Serb leaders not to get involved in Croatia at all," Lord Owen told reporters. Mr. Vance and Lord Owen insisted that they received assurances from Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic that Belgrade would hold back on threats of intervention to protect fellow Serbs in Croatia from harm at the hands of Croatian troops.

But the Yugoslav military chief of staff in Belgrade warned that federal troops were poised to invade Croatia, and a U.N. source at the conference in Geneva said Mr. Cosic and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had made clear that they were prepared for another round of bitter war.

"The army will undertake measures to defend the endangered Serbian people and extend humanitarian and all other help," Gen. Zivota Panic, the Yugoslav army's top officer, warned the U.N. peacekeeping mission, according to Belgrade radio.

The Croatian operation, apparently aimed at securing a key route to the Adriatic coast that had been cut off by rebel Serbs for more than a year, blew apart a detailed peace plan for Croatia negotiated by Mr. Vance 13 months ago and largely observed by the combatants.

Efforts to rescue the Croatian mission drew the mediators away from from the talks on Bosnia, where a 10-month-old Serb offensive has displaced nearly half the republic's population and left more than 100,000 missing and presumed dead.

Mr. Vance and Lord Owen, joint chairmen of the Geneva peace talks on what used to be Yugoslavia, had been presenting the Croatian agreement as a model for settling the Bosnian crisis.

Croatian government forces and Serbs backed by the well-armed Yugoslav federal army fought to a standstill in 1991, with the rebel Serbs taking one-third of Croatian territory in their six-month offensive.

The Vance plan, as the Croatian peace accord came to be known, led to the deployment of 14,000 U.N. troops in the disputed territories but failed in its aim of disarming the Serbian rebel militias and restoring the region to civilian control.

It was frustration with the United Nations' de facto protection of the Serbian land grab that motivated the Croatian invasion of Serb-held areas.

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