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Croat army poised to grab East Slavonia

Balkan turning point: Zagreb masses troops near border of Serbian enclave as guns fall silent in Bosnia

Europe Editor

Croat tanks and troops took up positions only 12 miles from the Serb- held enclave of Eastern Slavonia yesterday in what may herald an offensive to recapture the last piece of Croatian territory in Serb hands. United Nations officials in Zagreb said it was premature to predict a Croat attack, but evidence is accumulating that President Franjo Tudjman has decided force is the best way to solve the problem of Eastern Slavonia.

At last Saturday's convention of his ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), he said: "We will do everything to restore these areas to the constitutional and legal system of Croatia in a peaceful way, above all because we do not want fresh casualties and because every drop of Croat blood and every Croatian life is precious ... but if we cannot do this, then we will use all means to which a sovereign state has the right."

The words were almost identical to those Mr Tudjman used before Operation Storm, the offensive last August in which Croat forces swept aside Serb resistance in the Krajina region. Negotiations between the Croatian government and the Serbs of east Slavonia have made little progress, with Croatia rejecting Serb appeals for a five-year transitional period before the region's final status is settled.

In another hint that an offensive may be imminent, the Foreign Minister, Mate Granic, said last week: "We are ready for talks with Croatian Serbs from eastern Slavonia, but not for any buying of time. The deadline is firmly decided and is very close now."

Croatia has said it will allow time for negotiations up to 30 November, when the UN peace-keeping mandate in Croatia expires. But Mr Tudjman could strike before then; the peace-keepers' presence proved no obstacle to the Croatian army when it took western Slavonia in May and the Krajina in August.

Mr Tudjman and his HDZ colleagues issue daily warnings of an offensive on Eastern Slavonia at rallies for Croatia's 29 October general election. The HDZ is guaranteed victory, partly because of Croatia's military successes, but also because Mr Tudjman rushed a new election law through parliament last month, tipping the scales in his party's favour.

The law gives the vote to almost 400,000 Croats abroad, most of whom are in Bosnia. Since the HDZ's Bosnian satellite party dominates Bosnian Croat politics, most Bosnian Croats seem certain to vote for Mr Tudjman's party in the Croatian election.

Another more ominous implication of treating Bosnian Croats as part of Croatia's electorate is that Mr Tudjman may be preparing the ground for the merger of Bosnian Croat territory into a greater Croatia. The new election law greatly diminishes the status of Serbs in Croatia, as it guarantees only three seats in parliament for national minorities, down from the previous 13.