Croats put Krajina Serb homes to the torch

TURMOIL IN THE BALKANS: UN protests to Zagreb over abuses - and announces imminent withdrawal of troops

After the fighting, and the fleeing, they have started the burning. Along the back-roads of what was until two days ago the fighting zone, away from UN check-points and the highway, the plumes of black smoke tell the tale of vengeance. As the Serb exodus from the Krajina region intensified yesterday, Croats were starting the serious work of cleaning up behind them; ensuring that some of the fleeing families would certainly never have the chance to come back home.

The Croatian authorities deny that any acts of retribution or abuse are being carried out. The UN and other human rights monitors, attempting to assess the extent of Croatian abuses in the wake of the offensive, think otherwise.

The UN also reported yesterday that a "large number" of Serb houses in the southern sector of Krajina have been torched. On one 10 kilometre stretch of hilly road south of Slunj I counted nine torched houses, most smouldering but one still in flames. In the area around Krstinja, a village near Slunj, UN observers said almost all the Serb houses had been burnt or otherwise made uninhabitable.

The UN has protested to the Croatian government about an attack on a refugee convoy south of the town of Sisack when a mob of angry Croats dragged fleeing Serbs from their cars and beat them. The reports also cited claims that Serbian Orthodox nuns had been attacked in the rampage, which Croatian police and military did little to stop. More than 800 Serbs are being held by Croat authorities in Knin, but Western humanitarian bodies have been denied all access.

Danish peace-keepers in the border town of Dvor confirm that Bosnian Muslims ran amok in a schoolyard on Wednesday, killing five elderly Serbs at point-blank range.

The UN in Zagreb has called for more staff to help it detail the evidence of abuses in the Krajina assault and its aftermath. But officials in Zagreb concede that their ability to assess the real extent of human rights violations is severely limited by the restrictions on movement imposed by the Croats.

The UN gave indications yesterday that it is to make a major withdrawal from Croatia and is considering a cutback in its presence in Bosnia. "The great majority of our personnel, particularly the soldiers, will be withdrawn in the next two to three months," the UN special envoy, Yasushi Akashi, said after a meeting with senior Croatian government officials.

"The decision to withdraw various battalions of the military forces of Uncro [UN Confidence Restoration Operation] has been taken. It will begin in a matter of days," he added.

In the aftermath of the military offensive, a concerted propaganda offensive has been launched by the Zagreb government. In recent days selected "tours" for journalists have been laid on to illustrate the massive destruction carried out by Serbs against Croatian houses during the Serbian capture of the area in 1991.

The "tours" also purport to show how Croatia has carried out its promise to the US government by refraining from mimicking Serbian "cleansing" methods. The Croatian government has told its Western critics that all the Serbian refugees who fled did so of their own accord.

But the authorised tours of the fighting zones have been kept well away from the fiercest areas of the conflict. The "cleansing" has been well "sanitised". Apart from the small group on our military bus, passing through an area beyond the checkpoints, there was nobody to watch as the wooden structure of a Serb house crackled in fierce flames. Whoever lit the torch had long since fled. Nobody except us was there to watch as the flames licked around the family car still parked in the driveway, its owners perhaps now sitting in a refugee camp in Banja Luka.

Our Croatian military escort shrugged when asked why the house was burning. Then he suggested that perhaps the Croatian army had set fire to it because it was used as an ammunition store by the Serbs and was therefore dangerous. In a few weeks these scorched patches of land would be covered with weeds, and the evidence of the family who had lived there gone for good.

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