UN troops thwart armed Serbs: Peace-keeping forces in Croatia threatened by 16,000 irregulars posing as policemen

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The Independent Online
THE CIVILIAN head of the United Nations peace-keeping operation in Croatia said yesterday that it was facing its 'first big crisis' since the operation was set up six months ago. He revealed that there had been an armed stand-off between UN forces and Serbian irregulars in eastern Croatia on Wednesday.

Cedric Thornberry, one of the most senior UN officials in former Yugoslavia, described how a group of 25 Serbian militiamen in full combat gear surrounded a small UN force from Belgium guarding the bridge between Croatia and Serbia on the river Danube at Batina and ordered them to dismantle the checkpoint.

Several Serbian armoured personnel carriers rolled through the supposedly demilitarised UN-controlled zone towards Batina, in what seemed like a preparation to attack the Belgian forces.

The refusal of the Belgian commander to abandon the bridge and the arrival of two UN sector commanders in eastern Croatia forced the Serbs to back away from a confrontation.

Mr Thornberry said that 'resolute attempts' by the Belgian peace-keepers to disarm local Serbian irregulars had triggered the crisis.

The situation in the UN-controlled Baranja region in eastern Croatia is likely to worsen. A group of 20,000 Croats, expelled by Serbian militants last year in the first big case of 'ethnic cleansing', threatened on Tuesday to walk across UN lines and go home.

The UN closed the two checkpoints between Baranja and Croatian-held territory, to stop them crossing. But the Croatian refugees say more than 18,000 are still preparing to march back home to Baranja in 10 days.

The biggest problem is the UN's failure to disarm a force of 16,000 well- armed Serbian irregulars operating in the UN zones in Croatia, posing as local policemen. Mr Thornberry said they 'are responsible for many outrages, expelling Croatians who refuse to leave, and they are suspected of killing people. Disarming these special police is the real problem'.

He added: 'There is no way we can allow any refugees to return home until we have taken real control.'

Relief workers in Zagreb, meanwhile, described as blackmail a Serbian offer to dump an estimated 170,000 detainees on the doorstep of Western relief agencies. 'For the moment we can only confirm that negotiations are in progress with all parties in Bosnia to liberate these people from the camps,' said Gabriela Chaves, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 'Once again, they have placed the relief agencies in a very tough spot,' said a senior Western offical. 'It's a cute game the Serbs are playing.'

Tensions between the Serbs and the UN are accompanied by a fierce struggle for power between the Serbs who control the UN zones. Serbian hardliners, led by Milan Martic, the police chief of Knin in southern Croatia, are ready to fight with Croatia to the end.

A moderate faction sees no way out from reaching a deal with Croatia, involving 'special status'. One local Serb politician who belonged to the moderate faction, in the town of Vrginmost, was recently murdered. His death has been widely linked to this battle for power.

In Sarajevo, mortar and grenade explosions ripped through the city last night and damaged the barracks of UN forces, but there were no casualties among the peace-keepers. The Bosnian government building was also set on fire.

Earlier, a Ukrainian soldier with the UN peace-keeping force was shot dead by a sniper at the Marshal Tito Barracks. He is the 12th blue-helmet to die in Bosnia and Croatia.

Meanwhile, the Italian Defence Minister, Salvo Ando, said Italy was willing to send up to 1,500 troops to Yugoslavia.

First casualty, page 8

Rift over Iraq denied, page 9

Leading article, page 18