Croatia declares key bridge open again

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DEFYING a feared attack by rebel Serbs, Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, yesterday marched briskly across the new pontoon at Maslenica, re-opening the crucial link damaged in fighting with Serbs two years ago.

'This is the happiest day of my life. Now I can die peacefully,' said a 64- year-old Croat, Mario, who followed the President across the bridge on a bicycle festooned with Croatian flags.

From a flotilla of boats bobbing on the water, hundreds of locals turned out to cheer President Tudjman and the head of the country's armed forces, Geneal Janko Bobetko, as they walked across the bridge.

'This is a symbol of the renewed unity of our country, the north and the south, linked by this bridge. It is the first step towards re-establishing the integrity of our state,' Mr Tudjman said. He opened the 270- metre bridge over Maslenica gorge, an inlet of the Adriatic about 18 miles east of Zadar after hours of delays because of shelling nearby.

Fears that the re-opening of the bridge might spark off a new round of fighting with rebel Serbs holding one quarter of the country receded at the weekend after Mr Tudjman and President Slobodan Milosevic hammered out a deal.

Under the agreement Croatia will withdraw its police and army from the Maslenica region, which lies inside the United Nations-protected zone in Croatia, and will hand the area over to the exclusive control of UN peace-keepers. Three ethnic Serb villages are also due to be handed back to local Serbs. In return, Mr Milosevic pledged to influence Serbian forces in Croatia not to bombard the re-opened bridge.

Nationalists in Croatia expressed fury over the terms of the agreement, savaging an alleged capitulation to their historic Serbian foe and condemning the proposed withdrawal of Croatian police from Maslenica as nothing short of high treason. Several opposition parties demanded an emergency session of the country's parliament, and even emergency elections. 'Most people are very angry about this deal but they hope the old fox knows what he is doing,' said Alan, a Zagreb hotelier.

But in war-devastated villages near Maslenica hundreds of local peasants gathered by the roadside, many in tears, as the first convoy of cars rolled across Maslenica bridge. They hope the deal means an end to destructive Serbian bombardments of their homes and the possible revival of a once-flourishing tourist industry on which the coastline formerly depended for its livelihood.

President Tudjman insisted the deal was an unmitigated success, bringing hopes for the revival of Croatia's sluggish economy and ushering in a new era of pece. Speaking amid the rubble and broken glass at Zadar's half-destroyed airport, he claimed the agreement was 'the first decisive step towards re-establishing constitutional government over the whole of Croatia's territory'.