Yugoslavs Brace for Croatia Clash

Army attempts to keep fragile peace, as Serbians vow they will block Croatian moves to secede

ALTHOUGH international attention has focused on Slovenia's battle for independence, Yugoslavs worry that the greatest potential for violence lies in the country's heartland - the Croatian Republic.This region is home to large numbers of Yugoslavia's two main ethnic groups - Serbians and Croatians - and also to deep ethnic and political divisions. Unlike tiny Slovenia, with a homogenous population of 2 million, Croatia has 600,000 Serbians among its 5 million inhabitants. Many Serbians have been in open, armed revolt against the Croatian authorities for months. They have repeatedly asked Yugoslavia's federal Army to protect them. Glina, a town with a majority Serbian population 50 miles south of the Croatian capital of Zagreb, exemplifies the conflict: Late last month, Serbians stormed the police station after Croatia proclaimed independence, killing two Croatian policemen. In the aftermath, three Serbians were shot and killed.

Federal Army deploys The federal Army has since moved in, as part of a growing deployment across parts of Croatia inhabited predominantly by Serbians. So far, the Army intervention has kept a fragile peace. But few expect it to last. "We are afraid," says Boris Martinovic, a Serbian lawyer, nodding toward the bullet-shattered windows of the bus station. Croatian Information Minister Hrvoje Hitrec says he expected an attack on Croatia within days by the federal Army. "Slovenia is Disneyland compared with the conflicts we would have here," Mr. Hitrec says. In Bonn, meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher warned Sunday that the European Community would reconsider its decision not to recognize Yugoslavia's breakaway republics if the Army intervened against them again. Last week, the EC suspended all arms sales and aid to Belgrade. At press time yesterday, foreign ministers from three EC nations were meeting on the Yugoslav island of Brioni with federal and republican leaders in a renewed effort to end the crisis. Croatian officials say the likely flashpoint for all-out civil war would be Serbian enclaves in Croatia, where they claim Serbian "terrorists" are inciting rebellion. Armed conflict in Croatia poses far more dangers than the fighting in Slovenia because it could ignite Serb-Croat conflict in Bosnia, where there is a volatile ethnic mix of Muslims, Croatians, and Serbians. Such strife might also spark an attempt by Serbia to annex regions where Serbians are in the majority, analysts say. While Serbia's communist leaders now say Slovenia should be allowed to secede, they fiercely oppose Croatia doing the same. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic warned Serbs over the weekend "to be prepared for war." In a television address, Mr. Milosevic sent a clear message that the federal Army would protect ethnic Serbian interests throughout Yugoslavia. "In view of the war threats being made against our country, I believe that the Yugoslav Army should be on the territories which are populated by peoples who opt to live in Yugoslavia together and in peace," he said. Croatians consider such statements further evidence of Serbian "expansionism." Serbia's distrust of Croatia stems from World War II, when a pro-Nazi Croatian puppet government killed hundreds of thousands of Serbians. Slovenia and Croatia are the two most Westward-looking, at least in economic terms, of Yugoslavia's six republics. And their center-right governments, particularly Croatia's authoritarian leadership, have thrived on a wave of nationalist sentiment. Since May, Croat-Serb fighting has become almost a daily occurrence. In Slavonia, eastern Croatia, villages routinely exchange mortar and machine-gun fire. In recent days, federal troops and several tank units that had been dispatched from Belgrade north toward Slovenia have been redeployed to the region.

Croatians dig in Although Croatia's 70,000-strong defense force would be outgunned by the federal Army in numbers and armor, Croatians are well-armed in the villages that dot all of Yugoslavia and could easily mount a guerrilla campaign, observers say. According to Croatian Interior Minister Josip Boljkoviac, Croatians and Slovenians are deserting the Army in droves. "The Army high command is already taking steps to create an all-Serb Army," he claims. Croatia, Yugoslavia's wealthiest and second-largest republic, gave plenty of verbal support to Slovenia during its fight for independence, but did little else. Zagreb cautiously asserted its sovereignty, never tried to formally take control of its borders, and was spared Army intervention. But although Croatian officials have agreed - at the EC's urging - to put their independence on hold pending further talks, much of the Croatian countryside resembles an armed camp.

Face-off in Glina Along the road to Glina, roadblocks manned by jumpy Croatian guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles are set up at each village and bridge. At alternating Serb-Croat checkpoints, travelers are warned to beware of the "terrorists" on the other side. Traffic must pass two roadblocks within 500 feet at the north entrance to Glina, where the Croatian minority lives. Croatian banners - red, blue, and white, with a checkered shield at the center - flutter from stores and homes in north Glina. The Yugoslav flag flies in Serbian territory. Most of Glina's 8,000 inhabitants fled to neighboring villages last week after fighting. So far, only 1,000 have returned. About 60 soldiers are camped in the town park and tanks secure the main intersections. Streets are deserted, and nearly all the shops and cafes are closed. In a confrontation where right and wrong have long since blurred, Mr. Martinovic, the Serbian lawyer, gives the Serbian point of view. The present situation is a logical outcome of the past, he insists: "The [Glina] attack was a spontaneous action by Serbians. The Croatian flag looks very much like the flag from the Nazi time, and they didn't like it. Glina is a colony of Croatia, and we have to free ourselves." Gavran Blazen, a Serbian mechanic in his twenties, remembers a time when Serbs and Croats coexisted here. "We didn't love each other, but we had peace," he recalls.

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