Ethnic Serbs Seek Secure Rights in Independent Croatia

Serb irregulars hold out against UN plan

FIVE-year-old Nikola leaped from the car, made his hands into the shape of a gun and yelled "rat, tat, tat." He explained to his mother he was shooting a Serb.

His mother, Vesna Knezevic, was startled. She is Radio Belgrade's Zagreb correspondent and a Serb from Serbia, married to a Serb from Croatia. She wondered whether she should tell her son he, too, was a Serb but decided that the little boy may not be able to accept that yet. She left him playing at being a Croatian guard.

Seven months of fighting have left a legacy of bitter hatred in Croatia. "The great losers from the war are Croatia's Serbs," says Mrs. Knezevic. "They are shunned in Croatia and unwelcome in Serbia." Even if occupied Croatia remains under Serbian control, it would make little difference to most of Croatia's Serbs who live in cities outside the disputed regions, she says.

Milenko Popovic, a Serbian orthodox priest in Zagreb, catalogs human rights abuses and says atrocities against Serbs are increasing.

"There are people who can't control themselves when they see their whole village destroyed and their close ones killed in a most brutal fashion," concedes Branko Salaj, Croatia's information minister. One of Mr. Salaj's aides acknowledges: "There is a lot of revenge killing going on. I don't like what the Serbs have done but that is not the way to deal with it." Mr. Salaj promises a full investigation of all atrocities, but insists that what some Croats are now doing to Serbs cannot compare to atrocities

committed by Serbs on Croats.

Serbian irregulars, operating out of Knin, capital of the self-proclaimed Serbian republic of Krajina, have vowed to hold out against a United Nations plan to deploy peacekeeping troops in the region. According to the UN plan, Croatia's borders will not be changed. The Serbian irregulars must give up their weapons to the Yugoslav Army which originally supplied them. Then the Army will withdraw to be replaced by UN peacekeepers. Though President Slobodan Milosevic supports the plan, Milan Babic, self-proc laimed president of Krajina, does not.

Although the Yugoslav presidency vowed on Feb. 3 to enforce acceptance of the plan, diplomats said it remained blocked and the UN would not consider sending peacekeepers without the full backing of all the warring sides in Yugoslavia.

Milorad Pupovac, president of the Serbian Democratic Forum and probably the only man who can still talk to all sides, blames the Serbian president for the impasse. "Slobodan Milosevic is responsible for this war," he says. "He was first to play the nationalist card. And he chose to start the war."

"Serbs have a great fear of an independent Croatian state," explains Mr. Pupovac. "The fear is both rational and irrational and based in history." Ever since Serbs first came to Croatia fleeing the Turkish invasion, Croatia's various rulers, in Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade have used them to keep Croats in line. Croatian fascists, installed by Adolf Hitler during World War II, exacted a bloody revenge which remains fresh in Serbian minds.

For Mr. Pupovac the tragedy of Croatia's Serbs is that they have a violent, military culture, having defended the Habsburg Empire for centuries from the Turks, and are easily manipulated. "They were convinced they were fighting to preserve Yugoslavia - a concept abandoned long ago both in Belgrade and Zagreb - and would be protected by the Yugoslav Army," he says.

While Croatia has passed strict legislation to guarantee minority rights, the new laws will not come into effect until the war ends and Croatia has full control over its territory. These laws grant Serbs autonomy in regions where they form the majority and ensure strict ethnic proportionality in government organizations. The legislation was passed at European Community insistence in a matter of days. But erasing the legacy of seven months of war will take much longer.

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