Croatia 'ready to make peace' with Serbia: Secret talks provoke Muslim fears of a territorial carve-up in Bosnia

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WHILE fighting rages between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia, a leading Croatian politician, Josip Manolic, has returned to Zagreb from a secret mission to Serbia with a prediction that lasting peace with Serbia is in sight.

If true, it would be catastrophic for the embattled Muslims, now fighting their former Bosnian Croat allies as well as the Bosnian Serbs. An end to hostilities between Croatia and Serbia would reveal secret agreements to partition Bosnia at the expense of the Muslims, and deal perhaps the final blow to the faltering Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia.

Mr Manolic, a former secret police chief in communist Yugoslavia who is Speaker of the upper house of the Croatian parliament and one of President Franjo Tudjman's closest aides, announced 'war is now behind us' after returning from several days of talks in northern Serbia.

He said Croatia was preparing 'a diplomatic offensive' to normalise relations between Croatia and rebel Serbs, who hold 30 per cent of Croatian territory, after what he claimed was the Serbs' dawning realisation that they will never live within the boundaries of a greater serbian state.

At the same time, Goran Hadzic, self-styled president of Krajina, not hitherto known for his moderate views, announced on Wednesday that Croatia had a right to reopen road and rail traffic between the Dalmatian ports and Zagreb, blocked by Serb forces since fighting started in Croatia in August 1990. 'The Croats will never be peaceful while we are cutting their territory into two,' he said.

Croat and Krajina Serb commanders were expected to sign a truce yesterday in the town of Topuska, 60 miles south of Zagreb, ending military hostilities between the two forces.

Croatia has steadfastly refused to negotiate with Serb rebels controlling the mountainous Krajina region in south-west Croatia, preferring to talk to moderate Serb leaders in Zagreb. Signalling an about-turn in this fruitless policy, Mr Manolic said Croatia would seek partners for dialogue 'among anyone who wants to be included in the action to normalise relations between Croats and Serbs. We are not ruling out anyone in advance.'

The announcement by Mr Manolic broke the official silence in Zagreb on the secret talks with Serbia - which have long been the subject of many rumours. Convoys of official black limousines from Zagreb have been spotted several times crossing the plain of southern Hungary going to and from Sombor in Serbia. Some Serbian politicians in Belgrade recently leaked the news that Serbia was negotiating a loose confederation arrangement for the Krajina region in Croatia.

Croatia's army nearly restarted a full-blown conflict with Serbs when it reclaimed a slice of strategic territory around the Adriatic port of Zadar in January.

Although the action satisfied Croatia's injured pride, it failed to solve the problem of Krajina. The barren mountainous region is economically almost worthless and has few inhabitants. But it severs vital communications inside boomerang-shaped Croatia and leaves the Dalmatian ports vulnerable to shelling. Travellers from Split to Zagreb must go by plane.

Meanwhile Bosnian Croats released most of an estimated 1,800 Muslim detainees in Mostar, south-west Bosnia, after a ceasefire agreement this week, a UN spokesman said. But most released prisoners were afraid to go home and were camping near UN vehicles.

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