Croats set Serb 'capital' ablaze

Thousands flee bombardment Knin's defences breached UN soldier killed
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The Independent Online
Croatia set its tanks rolling and poured artillery fire into the breakaway Serb territory of Krajina yesterday as it launched a long-awaited offensive to recapture lands lost four years ago. The rebel "capital" of Knin and other towns were ablaze, sending thousands of refugees fleeing for safety.

Last night, as Croatia claimed to have almost captured one large town and to have encircled two more, including Knin, a half-ton Frog missile was fired at Zagreb in retaliation. It landed harmlessly in a field on the outskirts, however, and although it set air-raid sirens wailing in the Croatian capital, there was no immediate follow-up. Croatia said it was on the point of seizing Petrinja, 25 miles south of Zagreb, and claimed to have broken through Serb defences in 30 other places, penetrating up to 20 miles.

During their offensive the attacking Croats fired on United Nations peace- keepers several times, killing a Danish soldier and wounding three Poles. This brought condemnation from the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, and a threat of air strikes from Nato if any more peace-keepers came under fire. Carl Bildt, the European Union peace negotiator, suggested that President Franjo Tudjman could be prosecuted for war crimes, but diplomatic efforts to restrain the Croatian offensive were undermined by differences among the Western allies.

While Britain, France and Italy condemned the attack on Krajina, and the EU suspended trade talks with Croatia, the United States and Germany were more equivocal. "After experiencing how part of the Serb leadership achieved gains with brutal violence," Chancellor Helmut Kohl said, "it's natural the others are now at a point where they say, 'We have to react'."

Although President Clinton urged Croatia to avoid a wider war, he said that the Croatian action was a reply to earlier Serb attacks on the Bosnian Muslim "safe area" of Bihac, which borders on Krajina, and had largely relieved the pressure there.

UN staff described scenes of fear and devastation in Knin, with thousands of civilians trying to escape the fighting. "The local people that I saw looked very frightened; some of them also looked very angry," said a UN official in the "capital" of Krajina. "Knin has been burning off and on all day. We were woken up at 5 o'clock in the morning by a large artillery barrage."

He estimated that 300 to 400 shells had fallen in the first hour, after which the artillery tailed off. But sporadic shelling continued all day, with at least 1,000 shells landing in the small town, which is dominated by a hilltop castle. "There is considerable material damage . . . We've seen fires burning throughout the day," he said.

"There have no doubt been some casualties. In the centre of town I saw a number of people walk out and look around, and they did that between shells. Once the shells came whistling in again, they disappeared," the official added. "Lots of people were back in doorways, or protected by buildings, looking out and waving to us as we went by."

In Topusko, about 27 miles from Petrinja, UN staff were spending the night in offices or bunkers. "The town is practically deserted - people have all left, so there is a very eerie feeling," said James Kanu, a UN spokesman. Considerable numbers of civilians have been leaving the sector, mostly heading towards Bosnia. We do not have specific numbers of casualties, or numbers of refugees, because the picture is not quite clear yet, but they would definitely run into the thousands."

Officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross are preparing sites in northern Bosnia for the expected exodus. "It could lead to tens of thousands of Serb refugees streaming into Bosnia," Mans Nyborg of the UNHCR, said. "We have basically two potential disasters on our hands, one a military spill-over, the other a humanitarian catastrophe," Alex Ivanko, a UN spokesman in Sarajevo, added.

A UN spokesman in Zagreb said about 100 peace-keepers were forced from observation posts and remained unaccounted for following the Croatian attack on the "zone of separation" manned by the UN. About 30 UN positions have been over-run or surrounded by Croatian troops in Sector South, the lower half of Krajina, and two in Sector North are surrounded by Serb soldiers. "At this moment we have our fingers crossed, hoping our people are all right," a UN official in Knin said. "There could easily be 100 UN peace-keepers unaccounted for in Sector South right now.

"We're trying to carry on with our job of monitoring the zone of separation ... we're also very keen on trying to demonstrate to all parties that we're not going to leave."

In launching its offensive, the Croatian government is gambling that Serbia, the most powerful military force in the former Yugoslavia, will not come to the aid of the Krajina Serbs. Yesterday Serbia demanded international action against Croatia, but President Slobodan Milosevic gave no sign that he would intervene militarily.

Sources in Zagreb say the Croatian government seems determined to press on with its offensive in spite of international appeals for a pause for peace talks. Croatian military officials have said they believe they will achieve their objective - the re-conquest of Krajina - within 10 days - and that there is no question of calling a halt to the action.

But while the army seems to be advancing swiftly, the Krajina Serbs are unlikely to succumb to pressure, according to foreign officials familiar with the players. "There is a possibility that the RSK [the Republic of Serb Krajina] could crumble and just give way, but I don't think so somehow," said one.