Croats and Serbs Brace For Border Showdown

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TOMO DINCIR was watching a solemn funeral procession for one of the 118 Croatian soldiers killed in the country's weekend offensive to take back the Serb-held Krajina.

After it passed along the banks of the Sava River, Mr. Dincir - a World War II veteran - spoke in epic terms about the Croatian Army's accomplishments.

Echoing dozens of other Croatians, Dincir predicts that Vukovar, the only remaining Serb-held enclave in Croatia, will soon be taken by Croatia's military juggernaut.

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''Now, [the Serbs] have seen that they can't fight the Croatians,'' Dincir says. ''Whether they like it or not, they are going to have to give up Vukovar.''

Soaring Croatian military confidence, high public expectations, and troop movements by Croatia and Serbia have UN officials worried that the former Yugoslavia's two most powerful republics may soon be battling again.

''The Croatians are going to go for [Vukovar] soon,'' says a senior United Nations military official.

The city, leveled and then seized by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army in 1991, is a cause celebre in Croatia.

A majority of Croatia's refugees are from the city and surrounding area, known as eastern Slavonia. Retaking it would guarantee Croatian President Franjo Tudjman the historic mantle he has long sought - ''father of a united Croatia.''

On Aug. 7, a Croatian Army brigade with more than 1,500 soldiers was reported by UN officials to be moving toward eastern Slavonia. At the same time, Croatian officials launched a verbal blitz, warning that unless the region was turned over peacefully, it would face the same fate as the Krajina.

A spokeswoman for President Tudjman said in a television interview Aug. 7 that talks were under way with eastern Slavonia's Serbs and issued a stern warning.

''If negotiations failed,'' Natasa Rajakovic said, ''We would have to take other measures.''

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic may be willing to fight to hold on to eastern Slavonia. The region has oil and rich farmland, and gives Serbia control of the Danube River.

And as more than 150,000 refugees from the Krajina stream toward Serbia, Mr. Milosevic, who failed to help the Krajina Serbs, may be under intense domestic political pressure to prevent another humiliating Serb defeat.

In a clear show of force, Milosevic ordered an armored division to roar through the Serbian capital of Belgrade Aug. 7. The division, which includes top-of-the-line Yugoslav tanks and self-propelled howitzers, reportedly stopped short of crossing the border into eastern Slavonia.

It is unclear if Milosevic will fight. But if he does, UN officials predict that Serbia could hold on to the territory. Croatian officials may be badly miscalculating, they say. Serbia outnumbers Croatia in tanks and artillery by 2 to 1.

But Croatian officials say they are confident they can take eastern Slavonia.

''Croatia is not giving up. Our estimate is we are able to liberate it by force if negotiations fail,'' Defense Minister Gojko Susak said Aug. 7. ''What we have today is an Army ready to complete every task.''

Milosevic's failure to defend the Krajina and news accounts that Croatian President Tudjman told a British politician in May that he believed Bosnia would be divided between a ''Greater Croatia'' and a ''Greater Serbia'' within 10 years are prompting renewed speculation that a deal has been cut between the two leaders. Milosevic may be willing to give up eastern Slavonia in exchange for eastern Bosnia.

Whether Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic would agree to such a deal remains unclear

Back at the funeral procession, Dincir remains confident. Deal or no deal, he says, the Croatian Army can take the territory it wants. Using the code name for Croatia's weekend offensive, ''Operation Storm,'' he predicts more military glory.

''No one can fight with the Storm,'' he says with a smile, ''not even the Serbs.''

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