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Croats threaten Slavonia border


Europe Editor

In a show of force seemingly intended to concentrate the minds of Serb negotiators, about 750 Croatian troops with tanks, artillery and pontoon bridge equipment were spread out yesterday along the edge of eastern Slavonia, the last region of Croatia still in rebel Serb hands. The soldiers included 350 from the elite Tiger Brigade, who arrived on Thursday in the front- line town of Vinkovci.

President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia has warned repeatedly that if peace talks in Ohio do not produce a settlement in eastern Slavonia by 30 November, the Croatian army will launch an offensive to recapture the region, seized in 1991 by Serb rebels and the Serbian-led Yugoslav army. The troop deployments were clearly intended to back up that threat, although United Nations sources in Zagreb said the number of soldiers involved was too small to indicate an imminent attack.

Officials attending the peace talks at an airbase in Dayton, Ohio, have indicated that the Serb, Croat and Muslim-led Bosnian delegations are hoping to wrap up the conference with agreements on eastern Slavonia and Bosnia by the middle of next week. However, Serb-Croat talks on eastern Slavonia broke down last weekend.

Mr Tudjman's negotiating position is that eastern Slavonia must return to Croatian rule after a maximum one-year transitional period during which the region will be under international authority. The rebel Serbs want a three-year period, followed by a plebiscite which, they hope, would result in a vote for the closest possible relationship with Serbia.

A compromise foreseeing a two-year transitional period is possible, but it would not remove all disputes over the region. Having seen the flight or physical removal of practically all Serbs from western Slavonia and Krajina, the rebel regions reconquered by Croatia in May and August, the Serbs of eastern Slavonia remain unconvinced that their security or human rights will be guaranteed if Croatia governs them again.