Defeats spell doom for the dream of Greater Serbia

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Slowly but surely, the dream of Greater Serbia is dying, as the Croats and Muslims turn the screw on the battlefield and Slobodan Milosevic watches from afar in Belgrade. Never in the four years of war have the fortunes of the breakaway Serb mini-states in Croatia and Bosnia been so low, yet never has Serbia's President looked less like riding to their rescue.

The drama of the United Nations hostages, which at first appeared to confirm the Bosnian Serbs' ability to defy the world, has disguised the extent to which the conflict is slipping out of their control. It has distracted attention from the severe setbacks suffered by the Serbs in Croatia, whose rebel republic of Krajina may be fast approaching collapse.

For the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, the turning point was Croatia's recapture in May of western Slavonia, one of three enclaves seized by the Serbs in 1991 and intended to merge into a Greater Serbian state. The Croatian offensive shattered the myth of Serb invincibility and the myth of pan- Serb brotherhood, as neither the Bosnian Serbs nor Mr Milosevic raised a finger. In Knin, the capital of the Krajina Serbs, local Serb leaders were reported to be in a daze. Worse news was still to come.

In the past week, Croatian forces in western Bosnia have advanced to the point where they are hitting targets 10 miles from Knin. Although the Krajina Serbs attacked these forces by air yesterday, the Croats are poised to cut a vital road to Knin from Bosansko Grahovo, through which the Bosnian Serbs have kept their Krajina allies afloat.

Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, warned yesterday that unless the Krajina Serbs accepted reintegration by October, "there will have to be more lightning strikes" like that on western Slavonia.

He may have in mind a pincer attack on Knin from the Bosnian mountains and the Adriatic coast. The US is cautioning against the move, in the belief that the Krajina Serb cause could collapse under its own internal strains. A split has emerged between the Knin Serbs under Milan Martic and the Serbs of eastern Slavonia, the enclave that adjoins Serbia.The eastern Slavonian leader, Goran Hadzic, has denounced Mr Martic's attempts to forge a single state out of Krajina and Bosnian Serb-held land, and in this he has the support of Belgrade.

Mr Milosevic this week encouraged his placeman in Knin, Borislav Mikelic, to call for new elections in Krajina, a move designed to remove Mr Martic and others ambitious for a Greater Serbia. With the hardliners gone, the way could be clear for a general peace settlement.

This could mean the restoration of Croatian control over Krajina, with guarantees of local Serbian autonomy, or it could mean the transfer of the Serb population to parts of northern Bosnia allocated to the Bosnian Serbs under the existing Western-Russian peace plan.

As for Radovan Karadzic and his fellow Bosnian Serb leaders, the hostages crisis has backfired disastrously on them. It stirred the wrath of Mr Milosevic, eager to see UN sanctions on Serbia lifted, and provoked the West into strengthening UN forces in Bosnia.

The Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, has been out of public view throughout the hostage crisis. The word in Belgrade is that General Mladic is fed up with Mr Karadzic's antics and holds him responsible for ruining the Serbs' war effort.

The Bosnian Serb mini-state is a place where gangsterism has long displaced public order. Soldiers show little will to fight outside their native areas, aware that ammunition is low and the Muslim-led forces outnumber them. In April, the Bosnian Serbs suffered their worst defeat with the loss of Mount Vlasic, the peak in central Bosnia that holds key telecommunications towers. The Muslim-led forces are wearing down the Bosnian Serbs on several fronts.

One hardliner, Momcilo Krajisnik, yesterday said: "It is time to negotiate or choose war."

The Bosnian and Croatian Serbs could reverse their precarious positions if Mr Milosevic threw the full weight of Serbia behind them. For the moment, Mr Milosevic is holding back. Serbia, it seems, is more important to him now than Greater Serbia.