Croat Blitzkrieg Sends Rebel Serbs Fleeing

AFTER four years of fruitless peace talks, a rearmed Croatian Army has done what scores of diplomats could not do - "reintegrate" all but one of four rebel Serb-held enclaves back into Croatia.

As Croats dance in the streets and state-run television continually shows the Croatian flag flying over the Serb stronghold of Knin, reports of civilian casualties, abuse of peacekeepers, and a mass exodus of civilians are emerging.

In a 48-hour blitzkrieg, the Croatian Army routed Serb forces and regained control of nearly all of Croatia seized by rebel Serbs in 1991.

But after four years of conflict in Croatia and Bosnia, UN officials worry that the worst practices of Serb nationalists are starting to be copied by their enemies, the Croats.

A Danish peacekeeper was killed Friday, and two Czech peacekeepers were killed Saturday when their observation posts were shelled by Croatian forces.

And seven Danish peacekeepers were reportedly stripped of their weapons and forced with two Croatian Serb prisoners to walk in front of a Croatian government tank as it attacked Serb forces.

"There is evidence of an orchestrated effort [by Croat troops]," says Chris Gunness, a UN spokesman in Zagreb, "of directly targeting UN observation posts."

Facing a battery of a dozen TV cameras Saturday, Croatian Gen. Ivan Tolj sighed and shook his head. Why, he was asked, had a Croatian Army tank or artillery piece fired on a UN observation post, killing a Danish peacekeeper? "You all know what the Serbian rebels did to UN peacekeepers before - tied them to bridges and made them stand there for hours," he explained, referring to the infamous, but unrelated exploits of Serbs in neighboring Bosnia. "This time, [Croatian Serbs] tied UN workers to tanks, and those tanks attacked us."

According to stunned UN officials, General Tolj's statement is as cynical as it is untrue. Three UN peacekeepers and dozens of Croatian Serb civilians are dead after being deliberately targeted by the Croatian government forces. As many as 35,000 Croatian Serbs have been intentionally or unintentionally driven from land they have lived on for centuries.

But a Croatian government official says the retaking of the rebel Serb Krajina region is clean, just, and a victory for "Croatia, Europe, and the world." Playing on the Western stereotypes of Bosnian Serbs, Croatian officials are eagerly portraying themselves as the just forces of good overcoming Croatian Serb "terrorists."

WHAT is actually happening on the ground in the Krajina is both unclear and crucial, according to UN officials. A long history of recriminations and revenge is being either solidified or broken in the Krajina, but few governments - most noticeably the US - are voicing concern over how the Croatian operation is being conducted.

"When you compare the fall of these [Croatian Serb] areas with the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa, it's disgusting," says a UN official. "These are much bigger areas, but no one cares when they're Serbs."

In Knin, seven civilians were killed and several dozen wounded when a Croat artillery round landed near the front gate of the UN headquarters Friday evening. Several hundred women, children, and old men had gathered at the gate in search of shelter from the government's bombardment of the town.

UN officials say the main hospital in Knin was hit twice by Croatian government artillery fire Saturday, part of what UN officials in Knin described as "indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets."

Mr. Gunness and other UN officials say the targeting of civilian areas was part of a concerted Croat effort to terrorize Serb civilians to get them to flee. "We suspect that the goal of this war was to drive people off their territory and take their land," Gunness says. "We are confronting a looming humanitarian disaster."

Aid officials estimate that more than 35,000 Croatian Serbs have already fled into neighboring Bosnia and officials are unsure how many more of an estimated 180,000 Serbs in the Krajina region will stay. Croatian officials have not said how many Serb civilians they are finding as they take towns, but UN officials report that Knin - with a population of at least 32,000 before the fighting began - is deserted.

Croatian officials vehemently deny that they have targeted civilians or UN officials. Strict orders were given to all Croatian military commanders to avoid civilian casualties, they say. In an open letter before the attack was launched, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman promised Croatian Serbs that their human rights would be respected and called on them to lay down their arms and stay in Croatia.

"Ethnically cleansing is definitely the wrong term. We don't want them to leave," says Branko Salaj, a Croatian government spokesman. "The dynamics of the situation are completely different from what happened [in Srebrenica and Zepa]."

But UN officials say it's the same story in Croatia: "[Shelling civilians] is now standard military practice here," said a frustrated UN official. "It's shell, shell, shell - 'all you Serbs, Croats, Muslims, or whichever group it may be - get out. I need your houses for my people.' "

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