Frustrated Croats want UN troops to pull out

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The Croatian government, frustrated at the lack of progress in re-integrating Serb-held areas, of the country, will today formally ask the United Nations peace-keeping mission to leave Croatia at the end of March, when its mandate expires, accord ing to diplomats in Zagreb.

President Franjo Tudjman is expected to write today to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, asking him to withdraw more than 15,000 troops patrolling the four UN Protected Areas (UNPAs) of Croatia occupied by rebellious Serbs when the presentmandate ends on 31 March.

Although the UN would not comment, Yasushi Akashi, the special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, is understood to have been told of Mr Tudjman's decision at a meeting yesterday with Hrvoje Sarinic, the Croatian minister responsible for relations with the UN.

Zagreb is angered by the UN's failure to implement much of the peace plan for Croatia, which called for demilitarisation of the Serb UNPAs and monitoring of Croatia's borders with Bosnia and Serbia. The authorities in Knin, "capital" of the self-declared"Serb Krajina Republic" in Croatia, have refused to comply with these demands, and the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) is neither willing nor able to enforce them.

Although some progress has been achieved recently, notably the re-opening of a motorway from Zagreb to the Serbian border that cuts through Serb-held territory, the Croatian government is impatient. A diplomatic offensive has been launched to underline the point. Nikica Valentic, the Prime Minister, is in Peking and other envoys are visiting Washington, Moscow and Western capitals.

"What the Unprofor is doing in Croatia is to maintain the status quo, actually providing aid to the Serbs through giving oil and food to them," Mr Valentic said yesterday. "Under such circumstances, we cannot agree to the renewal of the mandate." A spokesman for Mr Tudjman spoke of intense diplomatic negotiations, but refused to confirm that a decision to terminate the mandate had been taken.

Threats to end the UN's mission in Croatia have been made often,but this is the first time the government has asked Unprofor to leave. The sincerity of the demand is questioned by some observers, who note that a UN withdrawal would almost inevitably leadto a renewed war between Zagreb and Knin, probably supported by Serbia.

The Croatian army may now believe it is strong enough to defeat the Krajina Serbs; alternatively, Zagreb may be attempting to raise the stakes and force the world to take a harder line with Knin and Serbia.

"It is clever," said one analyst. "It says to the international community: `What are you going to do to prevent a situation in which war is almost inevitable? What chance would the ceasefire have of being sustained without the [UN] soldiers there?' That's the question the international community now has to ask."

It seems that the US and Germany, the two countries with the most influence in Croatia, will have to persuade Zagreb that more can and will be done to fulfil the UN's promises to return Serb-held lands to Croatian rule. What can be done - short of military intervention - is unclear; nor is it certain that Zagreb actually wants the UN to take it at its word and withdraw. But domestic discontent with a situation in which more than a third of Croatia is in rebel hands, and hundreds of thousands of refugeesare displaced, requires some kind of action.