In Croatia, Civil War Hits Home

As Croatians boost resistance, European Community envoy announces a cease-fire

THE stars were out in Zagreb the night of Sept. 16. They shone clearly on silent, blacked-out streets in what only days before had been a relatively carefree "cafe society."A new offensive strategy by the Croatian military and retaliatory actions by the Serbian-led federal Army have changed the climate here, bringing home the possibility of all-out civil war. (The conflict has garnered the European Community's intense focus for weeks, and at press time EC envoy Lord Carrington said he had secured a cease-fire agreement between Croatian, Serbian, and federal Army leaders, according to Reuters. A previous EC cease-fire did not take hold.) The situation in Zagreb is tense. Croat forces, fighting Serbian rebels and the Serbain-led Yugoslav Army, have blockaded federal barracks, blown up tanks, and taken two ships since Sept. 15. The Croats have also surrounded Zagreb's Marshal Tito barracks, the city's largest, depriving 2,500 federal troops of food, water, and outside communication. The expected surrender would give the Croats their most significant victory yet. The strategy is designed, according to Croat National Guard staff member Davon Domazet, to "destroy Army morale." But federal forces counterattacked throughout Croatia and blockaded at least five ports along the republic's Adriatic Coast. Heavy fighting was reported at the port of Split. Britain's Lord Carrington, on his arrival Sept. 16 to pursue the peace process, acknowledged that he faced a hard task. His attitude appeared to match skepticism here in Zagreb about the EC's chances of success.

Shoring up the resistance The new Croat military policy is a bid to bring some strategy, spirit, and discipline to the Croat resistance - which has so far lacked planning and leadership, say many here. Defense Minister Luka Debic, for instance, is the fourth man to have the job since the conflict began on June 25, when Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Only in the past few days - with air raid sirens blaring and the Serbian-led Army and Air Force attacking positions north of Zagreb - has the sense a war is taking place in Croatia come home to the citizens of its capital. Even nonstop graphic coverage on Croatian television showing the federal Army blowing holes in the besieged Croatian city of Osijek in the east, and daily reports showing that up to 40 percent of Croatia is occupied by the Army, did not make the war seem real. Now parents are taking their children to bomb shelters. "It's dawning on people," said salesclerk Katerina Kolar from a shelter Sept. 16. "Before, the war was far away. Now people realize it's here." Though not all do. "What war?" said one pony-tailed sidewalk sipper of mineral water before the alert. "There is peace here, isn't there? Where is the war? I'm into music, not politics." Zagreb itself is not under the same tight security found in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, during its June bout with the federal Army, when militia were on every street corner and the population collectively galvanized. This curious Croatian ambivalence, a kind of slouching toward war, was mirrored in the poor planning of President Franjo Tudjman. "Everyone was waiting for Tudjman to unveil a plan. But there was no plan," says a well-placed Zagreb official. "Croatia has been late coming to the game," says Doran Bosniak, foreign editor of Vjesnik, the leading Zagreb political daily. A wide range of sources here, including a presidential adviser, say the new military strategy results from a combination of forces: political pressure on Tudjman, the dashing of hopes in a European-brokered peace, and the publishing last week in the independent political journal Danas of an interview with key Slovenian military adviser Anton Bebler. As a Slovenian, Dr. Bebler critiqued policy free from political recrimination.

Croatian illusions Bebler said that the Croats have been "under the illusion" war could be escaped and that independence could be achieved peacefully and without sacrifice. "The Croat government lived in an illusion," he said, about how far Serbia, Serbian rebels, and the Army generals would go. Croatia's paid professional Army led people to believe they didn't have to defend their country or local regions, Bebler said. And Croatians suffer, Bebler maintained, from an "all Serbs are bad" mentality that doesn't differentiate Serbs politically, a crucial element for political settlement.

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