THE recent arrests of Serbs suspected of leading a three-month ethnic cleansing campaign here give the first signs of credibility to Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic's pledges to curb ethnic violence.
With the arrests, Mr. Panic has begun to check forced population exchanges like the one that has nearly eliminated non-Serbs from a once-sleepy village in Serbia's ethnically mixed Vojvodina region in the space of a summer.
The arrests by Serbian police, after prodding from Panic, have not blunted fears that non-Serbs stay here at their peril. Two Croat homes were bombed in a nearby village a week later.
Hungary this month echoed claims by ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina that the purges are part of Serbia's plan to alter the ethnic balance in the region, whose 1.5 million Serbs, 341,000 Hungarians, and 98,000 Croats have lived in relative harmony during the war in former Yugoslavia.
Doubts linger over Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's will - and Panic's ability - to stop the purges.
While Serbia has claimed that it cannot control Serb irregulars' anticivilian excesses in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the alleged exodus of thousands of ethnic Croats from Hrtskovci this summer has happened at Belgrade's doorstep, west of the capital.
On Aug. 21, Serbian police arrested Ostojsa Sibincic, Hrts-kovci's mayor, who - according to area residents, officials, and press accounts - seized control of the village and led a drive to force its non-Serbs to trade their homes with newly arrived Serb refugees from other war-torn republics.
Cleansing, however, may continue with Mr. Sibincic imprisoned, one Western diplomat says. "Once you've sown the seeds of fear, it doesn't take much more to convince people to leave."
Suspected collaborator Rade Gaknak, the leader of a Serb paramilitary group once active in Croatia's Slavonia region, was also arrested, says Serbian government spokesman Ivan Djojevic.
They were found with a "small arsenal" of guns and grenades, says Tibor Varady, Yugoslavia's federal justice minister. Sibincic and Mr. Gaknak - whom Mr. Varady says may have been "instrumental in ethnic cleansing" - remain in custody on charges of illegal possession of weapons and threatening minority rights.
While there have been scattered reports of pressure on non-Serbs to leave six other area villages, the alleged cleansing in Hrtskovci is said to have been the most drastic.
In May, unfamiliar Serb paramilitary soldiers and civilians went door-to-door asking residents' nationality, says Jelica Slavic, a local Serb married to a Hungarian. Threats, beatings, shots in the air, and grenades lobbed at non-Serb and "mixed" homes were coupled with Serb refugees' polite entreaties to swap homes.
The campaign achieved a wholesale ethnic turnover in the village. The Index, an independent newspaper in Vojvodina, reported that early this May, 70 percent of Hrtskovci's 3,800 people were Croat, 20 percent Hungarian, and 10 percent Serb; by July's end, there were 5,000 residents, 5 percent of them Croat, 12 percent Hungarian, and 83 percent Serb. A July 8 report by Anna Vakos, a since-dismissed secretary of the village council, says 149 families had signed house-exchange contracts "under pressure," wer e "thrown out," moved "by force," or simply "left."
"People were forced out by lots of extremists," says Divna Icitovic, the Serb mayor of the nearby town of Ruma, which has jurisdiction over Hrtskovci's local government. Refugees and paramilitary men "came in and just did what they wanted to do."
Ms. Icitovic says that after the village's mostly Croat council had fled, Sibincic was elected mayor at a June 11 meeting which only some 200 people - all of them new Serb refugees - were allowed to attend. Sibincic changed the village's name to "Serboslavci," or "Serb Gloryville." Sibincic claimed his rule was "fully democratic" and said that the 350 Croat families who had traded homes with refugees did so voluntarily. They left for Croatia "for love of their fatherland" and "went away singing Ustashi p atriotic songs." Ustashi were anti-Serb Croatian fascists during World War II.
To some, Hrtskovci had become a pocket of lawlessness, largely untended by authorities. Serbian police were sent to the village in June after events there got media coverage, but non-Serb residents said they were still being terrorized a month later.
Federal Justice Minister Varady, appointed by Panic in mid-July, asked for an investigation on July 30.
"We don't doubt Varady's intentions" says a Western diplomat in Belgrade, echoing other observers' comments. "But the question of who's calling the shots is vital, and we're not convinced that [federal authorities] can take adequate steps against those carrying out the ethnic cleansing, the nationalists and paramilitary types.... We firmly believe that Milosevic has had the power to stop this."
Varady, an ethnic Hungarian and Harvard-trained law professor, shares observers' doubts that the arrests herald much. Having Sibincic arrested was "a very difficult thing," adding that Serbian, not federal authorities are now handling the case.
The federal justice system "is not yet in its final shape," he says. "It is very much in the interest of any state to put these things under control, and so far this game is not over."