As Peace Train Slips in Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia Take New Track

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WORRIED that the West may be slowly capitulating to the Serbs, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia are threatening to take matters into their own hands and further escalate fighting in the former Yugoslavia.

Last Thursday, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman ordered the 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers in Croatia to leave by the end of June. Unhappy with the sluggish pace of UN and Western efforts to regain control of the one-third of Croatia, known as Krajina, seized by rebel Serbs two years ago, Mr. Tudjman hinted the government might use force to win the land back.

In Bosnia, the Muslim-led government is increasingly defiant of Western attempts to broker a peace deal by appeasing the Bosnian Serbs, and government troops launched a counterattack from the surrounded northwest enclave of Bihac this weekend.

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Bosnia and Croatia, which in the past have gone to great lengths to avoid offending the West, appear not to care about that now.

``The fact is that UNPROFOR [UN Protection Force] is either unwilling, unable, unmandated, or unequipped to [get the territory back], so something has to be done about it,'' a senior Croatian diplomat says. ``It's hard to tell at the moment, but the chances [of war] are pretty high.''

Western diplomats fear that the departure of UN peacekeepers, positioned between Croatian government troops and rebel Serb troops, could lead to a resumption of fighting. Croats and Serbs backed by Serbia fought a bitter six-month war in 1991 and 1992 that left 15,000 dead.

``I think it is a very dangerous situation. It may not mean outright war, but our presence prevents small clashes, which could lead to wider fighting,'' UN Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi warned in an interview last week. ``It could lead to the Serbs from all the different lands fighting together.''

Croatia has theoretically been under a UN arms embargo since 1991, but is believed to have purchased, produced, and stockpiled large amounts of weapons. The Krajina Serbs are also well-armed and vehement in their refusal to live in an independent Croatia, which they say is a re-creation of a World War II-era, Nazi-backed regime that killed 70,000 to 100,000 Serbs.

``The Croats may have enough force to take back the cities and towns,'' Mr. Akashi warned, ``but they could find themselves in a Vietnam-like situation if the Serbs withdraw to the mountains and fight from there.''

Under intense pressure from 300,000 refugees eager to return to Serb-held areas, Croatian officials say they are willing to risk war to prevent a partition of the country.

``The fact is that UNPROFOR is giving the Serbs a false sense of security, while humanitarian aid agencies feed them, and Belgrade provides them with arms,'' Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic said at a press conference Friday. ``The decision to end the mandate is non-negotiable ... Croatia has waited long enough.''

UNDER a 1992 peace plan drafted by former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, areas held by rebel Serbs were to be demilitarized and an eventual political settlement was to be reached on how to reintegrate the Serb-held areas into Croatia.

But three years later, Croatian officials say, a negotiating group led by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and UN has gained only an economic-cooperation pact.

UN officials say Croatia's decision further destabilizes a four-month cessation of hostilities agreement negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter that appears on the verge of collapse. Bosnian Serbs are refusing to open up land routes into the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, preventing UN human rights monitors from entering areas where ``ethnic cleansing'' campaigns have been reported and blocking UN aid convoys.

The Muslim-led Bosnian government is responding with a military and diplomatic hard line of its own. Government troops advanced four miles out of the besieged enclave of Bihac after coming under repeated fire from Serbs in Croatia who have not signed the cease-fire agreement.

A visit by ``contact group'' negotiators - representing the US, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany - over the weekend produced no breakthroughs.

Diplomats in Zagreb say both the Bosnian and Croatian governments may think a spring offensive may do far more to solve their problems than waiting for the West to save them.

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