Bitter Fighting On Croat Front Deepens Crisis

Croatians renew effort to eject Serbs from territory they seized in 1991 war

AS the world rejoiced over stunning advances toward Middle East peace this week, a fresh outbreak of fighting in former Yugoslavia threatened to sink Europe's worst conflict since World War II to new depths.

Scores of people, mostly civilians, were killed and injured in central Croatia in fighting between the Croatian Army and rebel Serbs before UN officials could broker a truce between the Croatian Army and minority Serb rebels in Croatia on Wednesday.

But the worst clashes since the 1991 war in Croatia have left tensions dangerously high here. It remains unclear why President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia has risked igniting a major war that he cannot afford and that most experts say he would have little chance of winning.

[In other developments, warring Bosnian Serbs and Muslims came to a surprise agreement in Geneva yesterday to cease hostilities by tomorrow, which could lead to the signing of a broader Bosnian peace accord next week, the Associated Press reported.]

The latest battles in Croatia erupted when Croatian troops seized three villages Sept. 9 and 10 near the town of Gospic on the western edge of the Krajina, the self-declared state proclaimed by rebel Serbs on Croatian ground.

The Serbs responded with blistering artillery and rocket attacks on population centers across Croatia, including the capital, Zagreb, and the industrial towns of Karlovac and Sisak.

Under the truce sponsored by the UN on Wednesday, 500 Canadian and French UN troops in armored personnel carriers were deployed in dangerously exposed buffer positions along the confrontation lines around Gospic.

Croatia is widely blamed for the crisis, despite its claims that the assaults were to end persistent Serb shelling of Gospic.

President Tudjman is under enormous pressure from tens of thousands of refugees because of a lack of progress in regaining the Serb-held territories. He, in turn, blames the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) for not forcing the Serbs to abide by the provisions of the 1991 cease-fire accord.

But some see the Gospic operation as a deliberate high-stakes gambit by Tudjman for his own domestic political gain.

Tudjman's first aim, these analysts say, was to remind an international community preoccupied with neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina of his own unresolved crisis and press a demand for major changes in the UNPROFOR mandate in Croatia. He has threatened not to renew the mandate when it expires on Sept. 30 unless UNPROFOR is empowered to disarm rebel Serb forces and help reimpose Zagreb's authority in the Krajina.

It is almost certain, however, that the Security Council will ignore Tudjman's demand for what would amount to military intervention.

``They basically want the UN to reestablish the authority of the Croatian government,'' says a United Nations official. ``That means war with the Serbs and we don't want it.''

Tudjman may also have reignited the hostilities to halt fierce fighting within his Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, that threatens to pull the party apart when it meets at the end of the month to elect a new leadership, analysts say.

HDZ moderates are in an open dispute with a powerful faction of immigrants from Bosnia's Croat-dominated Western Herzegovina region whom they say are obsessed by a dream of joining their homeland to Croatia. The dispute could bring down Tudjman's government, analysts say.

``This is fundamentally a symbolic action,'' a Western diplomat says. ``A lot of it has to do with internal politics.''

Agreed Slaven Letica, Tudjman's former security affairs adviser: ``This obviously was a politically motivated military move.''

HDZ moderates say the Herzegovinians' preoccupation with Bosnia has diverted the government's attention from pressing domestic problems, especially the ongoing rebel Serb occupation and growing economic paralysis.

Croatia, which enjoyed international sympathy during the 1991 war with the Serbs, is now threatened with economic sanctions over atrocities and ethnic cleansing by the Bosnian Croats.

In apparent hope of consoling irate HDZ moderates and the West -

particularly Washington - Tudjman on Tuesday signed an accord with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in Geneva for a Croat-Muslim cease-fire and the closure of Croatian prison camps in Bosnia.

The latest violence in Croatia was marked by the use of weapons unseen before in the region.

The Serbs on Saturday fired a Soviet-designed Frog-7 missile - the forerunner of the Soviet Scud used in the Gulf war - into a Zagreb suburb.

The Croatian Air Force retaliated on Tuesday with attacks by four MIG-21 jetfighters, one of which was shot down. Until then, Croatia was known to possess only two MIGs.

``I think there has been a major and alarming escalation of this conflict,'' a diplomat says.

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