After Bosnia, Balkans War Could Shift To Croatia
As Serbs take more land, Croats threaten attack
KNIN, CROATIA — THE ``capital'' of the self-declared ``Serbian Republic of Krajina'' inside Croatia could seem almost laughable, except that this corner of former Yugoslavia might become the next arena for war in the Balkans.
Inside the would-be ``defense ministry'' hang old maps, marked with fresh ink to outline parts of Croatia overrun by rebel Serbs in 1991. A spent artillery shell casing serves as a trash can.
But Knin's streets, filled with young and old men in fatigues carrying weapons, indicate that a widening of the war may soon begin or end here.
Diplomats fear Serbs, on a winning streak in Bosnia, may turn their sights back on Croatia. ``We're at a very tense moment,'' says Peter Galbraith, United States ambassador to Croatia. And in Budapest yesterday, President Clinton told a European summit, ``As we strive to end the war in Bosnia, we must work to prevent future Bosnias.''
Western diplomats have intensified peace efforts to keep the war from spreading and to end the renewed fighting in Bosnia.
To put pressure on Bosnian Serbs to halt their attack on the northwest Muslim-held town of Bihac, French and British foreign ministers met with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic Sunday in Belgrade. Mr. Milosevic renewed his support for the current ``contact group'' peace plan, carving Bosnia up 49 to 51 percent between between Serbs and the Croat-Muslim federation, but it remained unclear if he still has the ability to persuade Bosnian Serbs to halt the fighting.
But such renewed diplomacy has not eased Croatia's worries that it may be next in a Serb advance. Croatians have been shaken by recent Serb gains in Bosnia and are not willing to let the Serbs keep the nearly one-third of Croatian territory they've claimed as their own.
The ``Serbian Republic of Krajina'' makes up just part of Serb conquests in the former Yugoslavia since war broke out in 1991, and this territory is especially valuable to Serbs. It brings them just miles from the strategic coastline of the Adriatic Sea - and a port for commercial trade for the largely landlocked Serbs. After two years of holding shakily to a United Nations-brokered peace deal, the Croats say they are ready to take up the fight again.
Diplomats fear that if Croatia attacks, Serbia also may be drawn into the fight - pitting the two most powerful and well-armed former Yugoslav republics against each other. ``War between Croatia and Serbia would have all the civility of Bosnia, with many times the fire power,'' warns one diplomat in Zagreb.
Clashes along UN buffer zones between Croatia and the Croatian Serbs picked up last week, setting a new record for cease-fire violations. Krajina Serb officials say seven of their troops were wounded in battles with Croatian government forces last week. Three other Krajina Serb soldiers were found dead in a UN-patrolled neutral zone between the two parties a week ago.
Rhetoric has also heated up. Croatia vowed last Thursday to launch preemptive military action to prevent a final fall of the northwest Bosnia Bihac pocket to the joint offensive by the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs.
Bihac is the only geographic barrier to the unification of Krajina Serb territory in Bosnia and the Krajina Serb region in neighboring Croatia. Observers believe that if Bihac falls and unification is declared, Croatia will have less of a chance of regaining its Serb-held territory.
``Croatia will not wait for Bihac to fall,'' Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak said. ``We will intervene before that.'' Mr. Susak said that Croatia nearly attacked two weeks ago, but was urged to show restraint by its Western backers. He warned that if a political settlement isn't reached soon, Croatia may decide to ask the UN to leave when its mandate expires in January and retake the Krajina by force.
The Krajina Serbs - like their Serb brethren in Bosnia - have become openly defiant of the international community. Along with sending ground troops into Bosnia, they have shelled Bosnian Muslim positions in nearby Bihac from their territory, and allowed airstrikes on Bihac from their airport in Udbina.
NATO airplanes bombed the airport on Nov. 21, but Krajina Serb officials claim it has already been repaired. The NATO airstrikes have not dampened defiant Krajina Serb rhetoric. Nikola Simjanovic, spokesman for the Krajina Serbs' army says they don't fear NATO airstrikes or US military intervention in the area. ``You Americans fear your own blood,'' he says. ``Serbs don't fear their own blood.''
Despite calls from the UN and Western powers to stop, Krajina Serb troops continue to reportedly cross the border in large numbers. ``The Serbs only fear God,'' said one Krajina Serb official. ``And God is on our side.''
Diplomats hope mounting economic pressures will lead the Krajina Serbs to agree to reintegrate with Croatia. The economic cooperation agreement signed Friday between the Krajina Serbs and the Croatian government is the second phase of international negotiations.
The latest agreement reopens road links, restores utilities, and reopens a joint oil pipeline as economic ``confidence building measures.'' The first phase established a cease-fire between the two sides in February.
Negotiations on the final pact - on self-government for the Serbs if they rejoin Croatia - are now set to begin. But fighting continues, and few experts see any chance that the new agreement will be implemented.