ZAGREB, CROATIA — INTENSE fighting continued in Croatia yesterday, and up to 80,000 Croatian Serb refugees were caught in the midst of heavy shelling, UN officials say.
But attention also was focusing on a political duel between the two top Bosnian Serb leaders who could bring peace to the war-ravaged Balkans.
Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic are engaged in a battle for control of the Bosnian Serb forces.
The general, who has conquered 70 percent of Bosnia, oversaw the ''ethnic cleansing'' of 45,000 people from eastern Bosnia last month, and reportedly gives out photo albums showcasing the damage he has wrought on Sarajevo.
Mr. Karadzic, who wrote poems glorifying war as a young man, calls Bosnia's Muslims ''Turks'' - referring to the period of Ottoman rule - and personally ordered that UN peacekeepers be handcuffed to bridges and ammunition dumps as ''human shields'' against NATO airstrikes.
Western observers are hoping that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, eager to have UN economic sanctions against his country lifted, is orchestrating a showdown between the two Bosnian Serb leaders.
The usually astute Karadzic demoted General Mladic last week and declared himself commander of the Bosnian Serb army (BSA).
Last summer, in what was probably his largest political mistake, Karadzic infuriated President Milosevic by refusing to accept the Western nations' peace plan that divided Bosnia in half.
Mladic, who is revered by his troops and reportedly backed by Milosevic, refused to accept his demotion. ''I remain at my post as commander of the general staff of the BSA...,'' Mladic said in a statement faxed to Western news agencies Saturday. ''I entered the war as a soldier, and I want to leave it as a soldier.''
On Sunday, 18 senior Bosnian Serb generals declared that they will follow orders from Mladic only and decried Karadzic's attempted takeover. But civilian leader Karadzic countered by having the Bosnian Serb assembly - the parliament of the self-declared Bosnian Serb state - overwhelmingly vote in favor of ousting Mladic.
Rumors of a coup by Mladic, who controls the military, are rife. ''Personally of the two, Mladic is stronger. I was half expecting them [Mladic's supporters] to storm the parliament,'' says a Zagreb-based UN official.
A former psychiatrist who rose to power by fueling Bosnian Serb nationalism, Karadzic may sense his own demise after watching events in neighboring Croatia over the last few days.
In Croatia, hard-line rebel Serb leader Milan Martic, who is also split with Milosevic over agreeing on a peace deal, is reportedly fleeing with 100,000 Serb refugees to Serb-held parts of Bosnia. As evidenced by this weekend's 72-hour Croatian rout of Mr. Martic's forces, he appears to have badly miscalculated. Milosevic did not allow the powerful Serbian Army to assist Martic's forces.
Over the weekend, Mladic apparently ignored orders from Karadzic to come to the aid of the beleaguered Croatian Serbs. Mladic, who may have been acting at Milosevic's request, essentially allowed the Croatian Serb regime to fall.
For Milosevic, replacing Karadzic with Mladic would eliminate the eloquent Bosnian Serb politician as a future political rival. And if Mladic - who has visited Milosevic several times over the past few months - will agree to a peace deal, it will enhance his chances of getting UN economic sanctions lifted. ''If [Mladic] can be influenced [by Milosevic] it probably would mean he'd be more flexible,'' the UN official says.
Little love is lost between Karadzic and Mladic. The two men have clashed frequently over war profiteering, with Mladic bitterly complaining that Karadzic and his cohorts are diverting valuable fuel and other goods from the war effort.
Karadzic is largely seen as a war leader whose political career is expected to end as soon as the Bosnian Serb public can blame him for their dire economic plight and international isolation.
But whether Mladic, whose first name means ''warlike'' and whose fame has come on the battlefield, would be willing to give up a chance to run the small self-declared republic is unclear. Mladic, like Karadzic, may retain far more power if the war continues.