Croatia's armed forces, rampant after conquering the rebel Serb region of Krajina, were on the brink of a victory in western Bosnia last night that could tilt the balance of the war against the Bosnian Serbs.
The Croats were poised to capture the town of Drvar, a success that would virtually eliminate the Bosnian Serb presence in the west and could encourage Croats and Muslims to punch their way through to Banja Luka, the largest city in Bosnian Serb hands.
Sources quoted by the independent Belgrade-based news agency Beta said Serb resistance in Drvar had collapsed in the face of Croatian attacks from the west and south. Military analysts in Belgrade said the Serb defenders of the town had been demoralised by the fall of Krajina, the flight of tens of thousands of Krajina Serb refugees, and power struggles in public between the military and civilian wings of the Bosnian Serb leadership.
Croatia gave notice of its intention to sweep through western Bosnia on Tuesday, when two infantry battalions - supported by tanks and artillery - rolled into Bosnia at Dugo Polje, 20 miles from Drvar. Other forces crossed the border further south and linked up with Bosnian Croat units that were pressing north from Bosansko Grahovo, a town the Serbs lost last month.
For the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, it is the most serious crisis of the three-and-a-half year war. Internationally isolated, denied large-scale support from Serbia and named as war crimes suspects by a United Nations tribunal, they now see a resurgent Croatian army rolling back their war gains and even preparing to enter the Bosnian Serb heartland around Banja Luka.
The fall of Drvar would leave the Bosnian Serbs in control of only one major town in western Bosnia, Bosanski Petrovac.
If that fell to the Croats, they would be able to link up on Bosnian territory with the Muslim-led government army that operates out of Bihac. The Croats and Muslims have already joined forces in Croatia and broken the Serb siege of Bihac that lasted 1,200 days.
To reach Banja Luka, the Croats and Muslims would first have to capture towns such as Prijedor and Sanski Most, where some of the most vicious Serb "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims took place in 1992. Such an outcome is no longer inconceivable as a result of the Croatian victories in Krajina and western Bosnia.
Croatian troops also massed yesterday around the southern Adriatic port of Dubrovnik in apparent preparation for an assault on the Bosnian Serb positions near the town of Trebinje. Croatia's objective is to push Bosnian Serb artillery units out of range of Dubrovnik.
The United States, which has emerged as Croatia's main Western ally, says that the Croatian military successes offer an opportunity to forge a general peace settlement in Bosnia and Croatia.
But the Croatian army's advance through western Bosnia seems to be so unstoppable that the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, and his advisers in Zagreb may see little reason to halt the offensive and start negotiations while their enemies are retreating.
President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, and the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, Richard Holbrooke, have been touring European capitals to brief governments on a new American peace proposal.
The initiative would allow the Bosnian Serbs to keep the recently fallen Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa and let them form confederal links with Serbia.
But the Americans have begun to play down another idea included in the plan, which was to offer the Muslim enclave of Gorazde to the Bosnian Serbs, after the notion was denounced by President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia.
Instead, officials maintain that if the Bosnian Serbs rejected the new plan, they would be liable to Nato air strikes and the Clinton administration would no longer resist efforts in Congress to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government.
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