THE village of Podlapaca sits in the Serb-held region of Croatia like a chess piece waiting to be played.
Its residents want to leave.
But with tensions increasing between the Croatian government and secessionist Croatian Serbs, both sides have a stake in the town. So does the United Nations, which was given an ultimatum by President Franjo Tudjman to strengthen its peacekeeping mandate in Croatia, which expired yesterday, or withdraw from the republic by Nov. 30.
``Each side in this conflict, the Serbs, the Croats, and the UN, are playing politics, and the people of Podlapaca are stuck in the middle,'' says a UN official in Croatia.
``We are just the victims of these political games,'' says Boris, a villager, declining to give his last name.
Podlapaca is the largest Croat community remaining in Serb-occupied territories of Croatia. The Serbs, who make up 11 percent of the population, captured the territory with the help of the Yugoslav National Army during the Serbian-Croatian war in 1991 and have since proclaimed their own illegal state called the ``Republic of Serbian Krajina.''
The Serbs expelled roughly 260,000 Croats from the three regions of Croatia comprising their self-declared state, but 117 of Podlapaca's 220 pre-war population stayed.
Ironically, now that all the residents of Podlapaca finally want to leave, they cannot. The Croatian government says it is already overburdened with the refugees from Croatia and 270,000 more from neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. The local Serb authorities, while claiming that they can no longer provide protection for the residents, will not give them permission to leave.
But political insiders and international observers say that beneath the official rhetoric lies something more sinister. For the Croats, they say, it's a combination of wanting to retain claims on the land and to stimulate anti-Serb sentiment.
For the Serbs, keeping the residents of Podlapaca in their homes is intended to demonstrate Serb tolerance for other ethnic groups while at the same time providing them with hostages.
``The Serbs need some hostages, and the people of Podlapaca are the perfect candidates,'' says Zarko Puhovski, a political philosophy professor at the University of Zagreb and a member of the moderate Serbian Democratic Forum in Croatia. ``From the Croatian point of view, the people of Podlapaca are much more valuable as hostages in this area than if they were to be given refuge along with the other thousands in Croatia.''
The UN, already criticized for its impotence in the UN protected areas (UNPAs) and wary of being party to ``ethnic cleansing,'' has refused to provide a military escort out of the region. UN officials in Croatia express hope that the peacekeepers, known as UNPROFOR, will keep the Serb rebels at bay.
In the meantime, life here has become precarious.
Earlier this month, the Croatian Army broke the UN cease-fire that ended the 1991 war, launching an offensive against three villages just 25 miles from Podlapaca.
The Serbs responded by hitting Croatian towns and cities, including Zagreb, with rocket and artillery barrages. Evidence of Croat atrocities committed on Serb civilians are only now beginning to surface, lifting anti-Croat sentiment to an all-time high.
``After the aggression by the Croatian Army and after the massacre they have done to the Serbian people we cannot guarantee absolutely [residents'] safety anymore,'' says Serbian liaison officer to the UN, Col. Mladen Balic.
The attack was condemned by the international community as a breach of the 1991 cease-fire negotiated by Cyrus Vance. As part of that plan, some 15,000 UN peacekeepers were deployed in the Serb-held regions.
But most analysts say the Croatian attacks were intended as a final warning by Mr. Tudjman to the UN to help extract him from a domestic political crisis by agreeing to demands that it give UNPROFOR greater powers to compel the Serbs to submit to Croatian authority.
As UNPROFOR's mandate expired yesterday, Tudjman was demanding that the UN forces in Croatia be given the power to enforce Croatian sovereignty in the UNPAs. He also wants a renewed international effort to achieve a political accord.
But UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had made it clear that he was not willing to comply with those demands.
The UN has put six armored personnel carriers in Podlapaca and doubled its presence from 23 to 55 peacekeepers. But even with the extra soldiers, the UN says it cannot protect the town.
``There is no way these people can receive full protection even if the UN and the local Serbian authorities do their best to provide it,'' one UN source says.
With the prospect of renewed fighting looming, the rift between the Croatian government and the UN leaves Podlapaca reliant on UN protection, and the other Croats scattered throughout the UNPAs dangling.
``We are very thankful for the UN here. If they have to leave, I don't know what will happen to us,'' Boris says.