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Conquest is national crusade for Belgrade

LAST MONDAY, the Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, made an astounding statement. After meeting Thierry Germond, the deputy chairman of the International Committee of the Red Cross, he denounced Nato's enforcement of a no-fly zone over Bosnia, and added: 'I drew Mr Germond's attention to the fact that we have received reports that these aircraft are manned by Croatian, Slovene, Albanian and Macedonian officers who have been trained in Nato bases over the past two years.'

It is hard to judge whether General Mladic believes such tales, or whether he knows they are untrue. But one thing is clear. Such allegations are faithfully reported on Serbian television and radio, and do much to explain the siege mentality that grips Serbs, whether they live in Serbia, Bosnia or Croatia.

For five years, Serbian authorities have encouraged the media to whip up fears that Serbs are under threat from all directions - 'fascist Croats' backed by Germany, Austria and the Vatican, 'Hungarian fifth columnists' in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, 'Albanian terrorists' in Ko sovo, and 'Muslim fundamentalists' in Bosnia backed by an international Islamic conspiracy. In this view, the Serbs' only friends are Christian Orthodox Russia and Greece.

As a result, the Serbs have embarked on a crusade seen by most as a campaign of conquest, but which the Serbs themselves see as a struggle in defence of their national identity. Many Serbian leaders are inspired by a vision of the unification of all Serb- populated lands in the Balkans into one state. They do not regard this as expansion, but as an essential step to prevent discrimination against Serb minorities in Croatia, Bosnia and


Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, made this point last Sunday when he explained why he had not accepted the Vance-Owen peace plan, which would divide Bosnia into 10 autonomous provinces, largely on ethnic lines. 'We do not demand all 60 per cent of our territory. We are not concerned about the quantity of the territory, but rather the quality and integrity of it, bearing in mind that we live in a hostile environment,' he said.

The weakness of the Serbs' case is that, while voicing fears over the status of Serbian minorities, they have shown scant regard for the rights of Croats, Muslims, Hungarians and Albanians. In Croatia and Bosnia, Serbian forces have systematically expelled non-Serbs from their native areas to create a single stretch of Serbian-controlled land. This runs from Serb-occupied Croatia near the Adriatic coast, across northern and eastern Bosnia, to Serbia and Montenegro.

President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, anxious to avoid more Western sanctions and even military strikes against his republic, has resisted pressure to announce the formation of a Greater Serbian state. But Serbian leaders in Bosnia and Croatia are impatient. They want an emergency pan-Serb assembly that, as a first step, would unite Serb-held lands outside Serbia and Montenegro.