Bosnian Serbs fall out as Knin is lost

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The Independent Online
WHILE Knin fell yesterday, the Bosnian Serb leadership were falling out among themselves. General Ratko Mladic, military architect of so many Serb successes, angrily rejected orders to stand down and let his boss Radovan Karadzic assume command of the army.

General Mladic was in Belgrade earlier yesterday meeting the European Union mediator, Carl Bildt, but in a thinly veiled attack Mr Karadzic described such talks as "treason". After returning later to his temporary base at Drvar near the Croatian border, General Mladic hit back, saying the attempt to sack him was illegal. "I remain at my post," he declared.

Mr Karadzic had demoted General Mladic to "special adviser" for the (so far non-existent) joint defence of Bosnian and Croatian Serb-held territory only days after the General told the UN he had no interest in saving the self-styled Republic of Serb Krajina in Croatia.

Mr Karadzic clearly blamed General Mladic for the loss last week to the Croatian army of the western Bosnian towns of Bosansko Grahovo and Glamoc, a victory that set the scene for the stunning Croatian offensive against Krajina. But that was not his only complaint.

"There are some commanders who have been interfering with civilian responsibilities or even wanted to negotiate with Bildt or [UN envoy, Thorvald] Stoltenberg," Mr Karadzic said. "That has to stop. Something like that is equal to treason. The army cannot negotiate with our enemies or with the international community."

General Mladic is known as Belgrade's man, and President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia has long told Mr Karadzic and the Krajina Serbs to accept international peace plans. So it seems Mr Karadzic's move is a last-ditch attempt to assert independence from Mr Milosevic, for fear of his powers and Republika Srpska being consumed by Belgrade.

"There is a power struggle going on," said one diplomatic source. "Karadzic's only chance in the struggle with Mladic is to consolidate the RSK and the RS as a single entity and present the case to Milosevic and the international community."

But if that is the aim, Mr Karadzic seems to have left it too late: shortly after he spoke, Croatia claimed the capture of Knin. It remains to be seen how the conquest of Krajina will affect the war in Bosnia - it could in fact work to the advantage of the Bosnian Serbs.

Some analysts believe that Zagreb and Belgrade can cut the deal to partition Bosnia, which is stymied by the presence of the Krajina Serb rebels. If Zagreb no longer needs Sarajevo's fight against Bosnia's rebel Serbs to prevent the consolidation of Serb gains in Croatia, it may cool a Croatian- Bosnian alliance that has always been lukewarm.

That may suit Mr Milosevic and General Mladic, but it might come too late for Mr Karadzic, who is unpopular in Republika Srpska outside his Pale stronghold. In contrast, his general is venerated for carving out 70 per cent of Bosnian territory and expelling hundreds of thousands of Muslims. His indictment for war crimes does not count against him in Serb eyes.

"Maybe we went a little bit too far with General Mladic: we have made a legend of him," said Mr Karadzic, conveniently forgetting that the general's reputation arises not just from propaganda but also for his skills on the battlefield.

The outcome will depend on the reaction of Bosnian Serb soldiers. And Mr Karadzic has already tried to curry favour with other commanders, singing the praises of the general in charge of the Second Krajina Corps - the very soldiers that were defeated in Grahovo and Glamoc.