Tudjman's champagne moment as Croats savour their revenge

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The Independent Online
IN THE EARLY hours yesterday, President Franjo Tudjman strolled down Ilica Street in central Zagreb to breathe the warm night air. The air-raid sirens of early evening were now quiet, and the silence of the city was broken only by the rumble of late-night trams and the clink of glasses under the cafe awnings.

The President, accompanied by his Defence and Interior ministers, stopped in a cafe under the spires of the cathedral. He ordered champagne and toasted the success of his forces.

"He looked a happy man. He shook my hand and I congratulated him," said Josip Knezevic, a Croatian refugee from Sarajevo, and one of the few who saw Mr Tudjman's quiet celebration.

It had been a good day for the President, whose forces were well on the way to recapturing Krajina, the Serb-held region seized from Croatia in 1991.

As news of the Croatian assault first came through yesterday, the mood in the capital was curiously subdued. For some hours, the city had braced itself for retaliatory attacks from Serb rockets, and yesterday there were few out on the streets. But after two rockets landed way outside the city, fear diminished, and Croats sat back to wait patiently for the victory they had no doubt was coming.

"It will be soon, a few days, a few hours, and all Croatia will be ours again," said shoppers out in the marketplace yesterday.

Croats in Zagreb describe the recapture of Krajina as both a moral and military victory. They talk of how they have waited four years for this moment, since the region was captured in 1991. Only the reassertion of Croatian supremacy could ensure peace in the region, they asserted, as they poured scorn on the UN and Nato.

"Now our victory will give new moral strength for the defenders of Bosnia to liberate their lands too," said Andrej Rora, editor of the Zagreb newspaper Panorama. "The UN has done nothing for us. The diplomats told us we could not liberate our lands, and the UN policed the occupied territories to help the Serbs. Now we have shown we have a strong army. Nobody can tell us what to do again." From a bar nearby came the strains of the Croatian war song God Save Croatia.

In a Zagreb press briefing room, the dismal failure of world diplomacy on the Balkans stage was writ large. As a pale Croatian general, Ivan Tolj, quietly outlined the latest military success in Krajina, the statements of the UN mediator, Yasushi Akashi, and the EU emissary, Carl Bildt, "regretting" the Croatian action were pinned up on a noticeboard to be read - and to be scorned. The message was clear: the Croatian guns have now ended the futile prattle of the diplomats.

Already Croatian refugees from Krajina who fled to Zagreb and other cities four years ago were talking yesterday of returning home. Milan Pachan, who fled the region of Slunj, where there was a 40 per cent Serb population, in October 1991, said yesterday that he hoped to go home "within days". He had heard that most of his village had been flattened by the Serbs, but now the Croatian forces were advancing to within a few kilometres of the farm where he grew up. "Before the war I had many Serb friends, but now it will not be possible. They have killed my neighbours and I cannot forget," he said.

There were no doubters on the streets of Zagreb yesterday. In the marketplace, nuns mingled with the shoppers as they left the cathedral, where church literature pictured Croatian forces preparing for war, and where the message of Croatia's "just war" has been consistently preached. There was nobody prepared to criticise the resort to military means, and none believed the recapture of Krajina would bring Serbia into an all-out war.

Few questioned the right of the Croatian forces to "re-cleanse" the lands they have seized back, from which thousands of Serbs were reported yesterday to be fleeing north and south.

There would be "human rights" for the Serbs if they wanted to stay, said Philip Chulo, a university lecturer. "Our President wants rights for the Serbs and he is a man of his word," he said.