WASHINGTON -- Western allies have struck a tentative deal with Croatia that would allow a sharply reduced contingent of United Nations peacekeepers to remain in the country and thereby avoid the prospect of a catastrophic withdrawal of all U.N. forces, senior administration officials yesterday.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman had threatened to demand that the 12,000 troops begin to withdraw March 31, the date the United Nations' mandate expires.
U.S. and European officials had worried that a pullout would require the help of tens of thousands of NATO troops, paralyze peacekeeping in neighboring Bosnia and cause the war to spread to other former Yugoslav republics.
In return for dropping his threat, Mr. Tudjman has won a promise that the current U.N. contingent will be replaced by a force of 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers, of whom about 10 percent will guard border crossings into Bosnia and Serbia.
The officials said they hoped that Mr. Tudjman would announce his decision today at a meeting with Vice President Al Gore in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they are attending a U.N. conference on social development. But they acknowledged that the agreement could still collapse over details.
"It's fair to say Tudjman will announce [today] that the peacekeepers can stay, but in dealing with the Balkans you always worry that things can still go wrong," a senior U.S. diplomat said.
U.N. peacekeepers were placed between Croatian government forces and rebel Serbs in Croatia in early 1992, after a six-month war in which 10,000 people were killed.
Mr. Tudjman has complained that the peacekeepers have shirked their mandate to disarm the secessionist Serbs and are in effect consolidating the Serbs' control over 30 percent of his country.
But the United States and several European nations have warned Mr. Tudjman that his call to expel the peacekeepers could not only set off a new war in Croatia but also worsen the conflict in Bosnia, where hopes of brokering an accord between the Muslim-led government and rebel Serbs have all but evaporated.
Croatian Serbs are allied with the Serbs in Bosnia, and Croatia's government has formed military links with Bosnia's Muslims just as the spring fighting season is approaching.
Diplomats fear that the situation could spiral out of control, causing the war to spread to Macedonia and to the predominantly Muslim region of Kosovo in Serbia.
Under the tentative deal, which has been pushed by the United States and Germany, most of the remaining U.N. troops would remain along a 1,000-mile cease-fire line that separates Croatian troops and Serbs in Croatia.
But bowing to demands from Mr. Tudjman, the plan envisions stationing more than 500 peacekeepers at two dozen border crossings along the Sava and Danube Rivers that connect Croatia with Serbia and Bosnia.
"For Tudjman this plan is important because it is a departure from the status quo and ends the creeping 'Cyprusization' of his country," said a senior U.S. official, in a reference to the Mediterranean island nation that has been divided for decades between Turkish and Greek sides.
Mr. Tudjman had sought to have the peacekeepers moved to Croatia's international borders in part to show that the United Nations would help safeguard Croatia's territorial integrity and would not countenance the carving up of his country.
Mr. Tudjman appears to have changed his mind about a U.N. withdrawal after diplomatic efforts last week by the United States. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke visited Zagreb on Monday, and Croatian officials began hinting that they were weighing a U.S. proposal for a scaled-down international force.
For the United States, a major concern was that withdrawing U.N. troops from Croatia would cut off supply lines to the 23,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia and ultimately force their withdrawal, thus raising the prospect of causing a wider war there.
"Tudjman is very eager to have his country integrated into the West," a U.S. diplomat said. "We were sending signals that we would help him do this, but that this wouldn't be possible if he took a dangerous step that we were trying to avoid."
On Thursday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher called Mr. Tudjman from the Middle East and secured his basic commitment to the reconfigured peacekeeping force, State Department officials said.
U.S. officials said that even after Mr. Tudjman accepted the idea of keeping a smaller peacekeeping force, a loose end remained: whether the Croatian Serbs would go along.
Peter Galbraith, the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, was sent to the Serb-held city of Knin to talk with them and obtained their tacit assent, State Department officials said.
On one hand, the Croatian Serbs feared that a withdrawal of peacekeepers from the demilitarized zone in Croatia would enable government forces to open an offensive. On the other hand, they feared that placing peacekeepers at border crossings might make it harder for them to obtain supplies from Serbia and Serb-held areas in Bosnia.