Belgrade slams door against Serb refugees

Balkan turmoil: Serbia bans fleeing Krajina troops from crossing border and sends them back to Bosnia

The exodus of refugees from Croatia was almost complete yesterday as the last Serbs to flee the Krajina region managed to cross borders into Serbia or Serb-held Bosnia.

But Serbia closed its borders to Krajina's men, saying that they must stay in Serb-held areas of Bosnia to fight. And Belgrade began to resettle some of the refugees in the ethnically Albanian province of Kosovo, raising fears of a new explosion.

Serbia toughened its stance on displaced Serbs yesterday, reportedly turning back 500 troops from Krajina while temporarily closing its borders to thousands of other refugees. A Serb official was quoted by the Yugoslav news agency, Tanjug, as saying that a group of soldiers and police officers from the former secessionist region had been turned back, and that all men of fighting age coming from Krajina would face the same fate.

On Saturday, Aleksa Jokic, head of the Serbian refugee committee, announced that all men of fighting age coming from Krajina would be systematically redirected to the Bosnian battle-fields.

Serbia also closed its borders temporarily to some 70,000 Serb refugees yesterday amid reports that Belgrade was trying to redirect the flow of displaced persons to a crossing further south, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Banja Luka. Bratislava Morina, Serbian Commissioner for Refugees, said that 113,000 people fleeing Krajina had so far arrived in rump Yugoslavia .

Tension rose in Serbia's southern province of Kosovo as the authorities pushed ahead with plans to settle thousands of Croatian Serb refugees there, despite fears that it will inflame tension with the majority ethnic Albanian population. About 650 refugees fleeing the Croat army offensive have arrived in Kosovo and the authorities have said they want to settle about 16,000 refugees there.

As the last of the fighting dies down in the Krajina region, the process of transferring the Croat population back into the region has begun. More and more Croat refugees who fled Serb-occupied land in 1991 were starting to return to their home. The government in Zagreb announced that at least 70 per cent of the Croats from the area would be able to move back in the near future. However, it remains unclear how many refugees will be able to rebuild their lives, as vast numbers of their houses were destroyed under Serbian occupation.

The Bosnian government, hoping the Bosnian Serbs were preoccupied with internal splits and the refugee exodus, attacked the central Bosnian town of Donji Vakuf on Saturday. Shelling diminished around the Serb-held town yesterday but a surge in small-arms and machine-gun fire suggested that infantry were trying to advance into the town, the UN said.

The government's principal objective appears to be the road from Donji Vakuf to Travnik, which would provide an all-weather route between the Adriatic coast and the heart of Bosnia. Gains now could prove critical for the Bosnians, as a new peace plan under consideration proposes to divide the country into two confederations, one linked to Serbia and the other to Croatia.

The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, and the US Vice-President, Al Gore, discussed the peace plan in a telephone conversation yesterday. Later Mr Izetbegovic insisted that Bosnia would never give up the eastern enclave of Gorazde. There has been a good deal of speculation that Bosnia might have to surrender Gorazde in a partition settlement.

Russia and the United States agree on the need for an international summit on the former Yugoslavia, the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, said, after a meeting with President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake. A Clinton administration official said that Mr Lake, on a mission to Europe and Russia to restart Bosnia peace negotiations, had won "general support" from John Major.

Leading article, page 10

James Fenton, page 11

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