EMBOLDENED by its new ties with Washington and the Muslim-Croat reconciliation in Bosnia, Croatia has resumed small, but highly provocative military incursions into its rebel Serb-held Krajina region, United Nations officials here say.
The officials express concern that the Croatian provocations and Krajina Serb retaliations could escalate into open hostilities that would undermine the new US-Russian peace drive in former Yugoslavia.
``You've had a lot of small incidents,'' a senior UN official says. ``In the kind of situation you have now, there is always a danger that such incidents could spin out of control.''
The growing alarm apparently led special Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin to seek an agreement between Croatia and the Krajina Serbs to discuss a cessation of hostilities during a three-day shuttle this week between Zagreb and Belgrade.
Mr. Churkin announced that the negotiations would be held next Tuesday at the Russian Embassy in Zagreb.
``There cannot be genuine peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina if tensions remain in Krajina,'' he told reporters.
UN officials say the Krajina Serbs are anxious to avoid a confrontation because they are preoccupied in trying to stem mounting economic hardships in the areas they control.
``The Serbs are desperate,'' says a senior official of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in former Yugoslavia. ``They don't want another war.'' At the same time, another UN official says, both sides ``are preparing for war.''
Most of Croatia's 580,000 Orthodox Serbs, about 12 percent of the 4.7 million predominantly Catholic population, refused to go along with its June 1991 secession from former Yugoslavia.
Backed by Serbia and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army, rebel Serb forces overran about one-fourth of Croatia in seven months of fighting that left roughly 10,000 people dead.
Under a truced brokered by the UN in January 1992, UN troops deployed in and along the boundaries of the three areas that make up the Krajina, which rebel Serbs declared an independent state. Guided by President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, they seek to unify in a ``Greater Serbia'' with their ethnic brethren in Bosnia and the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro.
Croatia twice broke the truce last year by launching major attacks on the Krajina and committing atrocities. One attack prompted Serb artillery and rocket strikes on Zagreb and other towns.
Moving in again
Speaking on condition of anonymity, UN officials say Croatian troops in recent weeks resumed small-scale incursions. In the most serious foray, officials say, Croatian units this week occupied high ground in Licki Osek that put them within artillery range of the Serb-held town of Korenica, 80 miles south of Zagreb.
The new Croatian provocations, which have also occurred in the Western Slavonia region in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, have provoked retaliatory actions by the Krajina Serbs, the officials say.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's regime has instigated the Krajina Serbs in other ways, including undertaking a new Croatian Army mobilization, UN officials say.
It has also declined to pursue talks on reestablishing trade, communications, and transportation links that the Krajina Serbs desperately need to revive their economy, the officials say.
The two sides agreed to reestablish those ties under an agreement Zagreb and Belgrade signed in January that was touted as a first step toward normalizing relations.
Serbian officials, however, privately confirmed that the pact's real aim was to allow the rivals to freeze their feud in Croatia in order to coordinate against the Muslim-led Army in Bosnia.
The US-brokered peace accord between the Bosnian Croats and Muslims has changed all of that.
Autonomy, at best
Mr. Tudjman can now divert troops and resources he sent into Bosnia back to the Krajina front lines. More importantly, the United States and Russia are preparing to focus their diplomatic energies on settlements with the Serbs, and neither will accept the Krajina's demand for independence.
Both Washington and Moscow recognize the Krajina as part of Croatia and say that the most its Serbs can expect are concrete civil rights guarantees and political and cultural autonomy from Zagreb. Tudjman says he would agree to such an arrangement.
Krajina Serb leaders are deeply concerned over the new US-Russian diplomatic initiative for another reason.
They are afraid that the Bosnian Serbs will be persuaded to join the federation that Bosnia's Muslims and Croats will form under the accord being signed today in Washington. That would eliminate their goal of pan-Serb unification.
Conversely, they worry the Bosnian Serbs might be allowed to join a large part of their conquered territories to rump Yugoslavia, but only in return for the Krajina in Croatia.
``The Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina will be tempted to seek unification with Serbia in total disregard to the Serbs in Krajina,'' complains Branko Filipovic, a senior official in the self-styled Krajina foreign ministry.
UN officials and Western diplomats say that unless the Krajina crisis is resolved, a stalemate could begin developing similar to the 20-year-old Greek-Turkish standoff in Cyprus.
``If you don't solve the Krajina problem, you are creating a Cyprus,'' a senior Western diplomat says. ``And, since the Croats will see it as a Cyprus ... they will then be looking to military measures at some point in time.''