Croatia threatens to rekindle Balkan war

March 09, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

PAKRAC, Croatia -- After four years of savage war in the former Yugoslavia, the specter of a Balkan explosion again haunts the ruins of towns such as this one.

Here, among churches and homes destroyed by shelling, the fault lines of past and present conflicts run together like cracks in a mended glass, and the most fragile seam of all is a year-old cease-fire boundary next to Pakrac's village green.

With its checkpoints and barbed wire, the line divides Serbs and Croats, former neighbors now in an uneasy peace that has held despite the ethnic war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 20 miles to the south.

But there are worries that the fighting will return to Croatia at the end of this month. And after four years in which the Serbs have been cast as the aggressors, this time a Croat, President Franjo Tudjman, is being blamed.

Mr. Tudjman announced in January that the 14,000 United Nations troops in his country would have to leave Croatia's stalemated battlefronts beginning March 31, when the current U.N. mandate expires. The peacekeepers, he said, were doing little more than protecting Serb renegades who seized nearly a quarter of Croatia in 1991. If the U.N. forces left, Croatia could try to recapture territory held by the Serbs.

Besides rekindling the old dread that the Yugoslav fighting will begin spreading throughout the region, his demand has raised the possibility that U.S. troops will be dispatched to support a potentially difficult U.N. withdrawal.

Mr. Tudjman's decision also has drawn the sort of criticism he has long avoided. Previously considered one of the more predictable players in the chaos of Balkan politics, he now is being cast by diplomats as the latest trigger man in a war without good guys.

What he apparently wants is the means to fight the Serbs.

"The Croatian establishment wants a quick fix, and for them the quick fix is military," said Alun R. Roberts, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping forces in Knin, the self-declared capital of Croatia's rebellious Serb minority.

Mr. Tudjman's aides stress that their army has no plans to attack after the United Nations leaves. But their careful words are being drowned out by blunt talk of revenge and territorial gain in the towns along 500 miles of front lines, where U.N. officials say both sides are rearming, reinforcing and digging in for the worst.

"If we leave," said U.N. policeman Harris McLean, a Canadian on duty in Pakrac, "all hell's going to break loose right here." He pointed from the steps of the old Town Hall across the village green, toward the checkpoint at the cease-fire line, 50 yards away.

Just in front of him was an iron statue honoring Yugoslavia's World War II resistance fighters. It depicts a soldier lying on the ground in agony, a carbine clutched in one hand.

There are new bullet holes through the chest and forehead. The statue faces toward a Serbian Orthodox Church. The church is gutted, and soldiers have shot out the faces of Jesus and Mary in the mosaic above the entrance.

Hundreds of similar scenes are scattered along the Serb-Croat front, each a potential trouble spot if the United Nations leaves.

The war in Croatia began in March 1991, as the country was making its move toward independence from the disintegrating nation of Yugoslavia. Croatian Serbs who feared they would be persecuted by the government of the Croatian majority clashed with the new nation's police. The Serbs soon declared their own breakaway state: the Republic of the Serbian Krajina. When the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People's Army joined forces with the Krajina Serbs, the balance shifted against the Croats.

A brutal 'prelude'

Because of the fighting and "ethnic cleansing" that has since taken place in neighboring Bosnia, Croatia's war is often remembered as only a prelude to the main event. But its brutality is evident in the scores of cities and towns that were destroyed, forcing nearly 400,000 Croats from their homes.

The fighting ended in 1992, with the Krajina Serbs in control of nearly a quarter of the country. The gains all but severed the Croatian capital of Zagreb from the country's ports on the Adriatic Sea.

There has been relative quiet since a cease-fire agreement a year ago, when the United Nations began policing a 1.2-mile-wide buffer zone along most of the front. But if the U.N. departs, both sides could rush to grab the hills and villages in that zone.

"If you are a commander and [U.N. forces] are on a hill and the enemy is on the other side . . . you will decide to try to get to that hill before the enemy," said Radomir Knezevic, an adviser to the president of the Krajina Serbs, who have set up their capital in the mountain town of Knin. "The enemy will decide the same thing. Then there is a fight, and that's that."

In the disputed territory around Pakrac there isn't even a buffer zone.

"In some places they are only 50 meters apart, and they stand there screaming at each other," said Martin Shankey-Smith, deputy commander for the U.N. police patrol in Pakrac.

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