Croatian offensive repulses Serbs: Geneva talks suspended - Tank battles rage at bridge and airport - Heavy arms seized from UN

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The Independent Online
THE SPECTRE of all-out war between Serbs and Croats grew closer yesterday as tank battles raged for a third consecutive day inside territory held by Serbs since a UN ceasefire last year.

Hostilities were touched off by Croatian forces seeking to regain a destroyed suspension bridge which had spanned a deep inlet of the Adriatic, connecting northern Croatia with the Adriatic coast. The bridge, between sheer reddish cliffs, was blown up by Serbian forces in 1991.

There were also fierce battles at the airport near Zadar, which engulfed French peace-keeping forces, wounding one soldier.

After taking the Maslenica bridge in three days of vicious fighting that left more than 100 soldiers dead, Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman said his army had ended its offensive in the self-styled republic of Krajina, where Serbs have resisted rule from Zagreb.

President Tudjman may have accomplished his military objective in the short run, but UN officials warned that the Serbian inhabitants of Krajina had broken into depots where their heavy weapons were under UN supervision, and armed themselves 'to the teeth'. Fighting was reported to be spreading.

The Maslenica bridge was the most vital communications junction in Serbian hands. It links the Croatian ports of Dubrovnik and Split with the rest of the republic.

The Croats had repeatedly said if UN peace-keepers did not let them repair the bridge they would seize the area. UN chiefs took little heed, appearing to believe the Croats were bluffing.

The battle for Maslenica bridge forced the peace mediators in Geneva, Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, to suspend talks between Bosnia's Serbian, Croatian and Muslim leaders to concentrate on the worsening situation in Croatia.

Warning of a 'veritable war' in Krajina, the President of the rump Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cosic, threatened to send troops to Croatia if local Serbs lost ground in areas conquered before the UN brokered a ceasefire last year. President Cosic's call for the Security Council to take urgent steps fell on deaf ears in New York, however, where there is considerable exasperation with Belgrade for dragging its heels in efforts to restore law and order in the parts of Croatia it occupies.

Satish Nambiar, commander of UN forces in the former Yugoslavia, said UN troops came under fire in at least two places during the surprise Croatian

offensive.

Krajina officials have appealed for people in Serbia to volunteer to fight. Serbian paramilitary chiefs, headed by Zeljko Raznjatovic, better known as 'Arkan', were quick to answer the appeal, setting off for Krajina with bands of troops.

'We expect a further escalation of this conflict,' said Zoran Bogavic, a Krajina spokesman in Belgrade. 'The Croats are lying when they say this is a limited campaign. They are fighting along a 100-kilometre front line and are preparing to use up to 30,000 men.' He claimed the Croatian forces were massing on the edge of the UN zone to attack Knin, the Krajina capital.

A leading Serbian general, the commander of the Novi Sad corps, threatened to order Serbian tanks and troops across UN lines into eastern Croatia.

The fighting severely damaged a fragile 12-month UN-supervised truce in Croatia. Despite difficulties in getting the Serbian side to co-operate with the peace plan, which involves demilitarising the occupied regions, Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, recently agreed to a package of measures, according to senior UN officials.

In defiance of the agreement, the Serbs have refused to allow Croatian refugees to return to Krajina, and have continued a policy of 'ethnic cleansing' against Croats remaining in the region. They also refused to return to Croatian control the swathe of occupied territories which the UN refers to as the 'pink zones'.

The stalemate has exposed President Tudjman to bitter attacks from Croatian opposition parties, and to accusations that he, in effect, surrendered a third of Croatia to the Serbs. With elections due soon for the assembly's upper house, he may have decided it was time to disprove this allegation. The choice of the Maslenica bridge for the offensive was not surprising.

(Map omitted)

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