Croatia revives its war against Serbs

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The Independent Online
CROATIA'S attack on the Serbian-held United Nations zone has reopened an unresolved conflict in the former Yugoslavia, just as international mediators were struggling to cap the three-sided war between Serbs, Muslims and Croats in neighbouring Bosnia.

Of the former Yugoslavia's six republics, only Slovenia succeeded in making a clean break. Shortly after seceding in June 1991, the Yugoslav army agreed to withdraw, following a week of skirmishes.

Fighting erupted in Croatia, which seceded from Yugoslavia on the same day as Slovenia, as the army announced the pull-out from Slovenia. Unlike the population of Slovenia - an ethnically homogeneous republic - 11 per cent of Croatia's 4.7 million were Serbs.

During the Second World War Serbs were massacred by a fascist government, installed in Zagreb by the invading Germans. Incited by the nationalist government in Belgrade, and fearing a repetition of past persecution, Serb leaders in Croatia said they would never live in the new state. With the help of the Serbian-run federal army, a Serbian enclave centred on the town of Knin rejected Croatian rule in August 1990, and started building up a rival government and paramilitary police force.

After Croatia finally seceded from Yugoslavia the following year, the Knin Serbs proclaimed a separate republic, called Krajina. In the autumn of 1991, assisted by the Yugoslav army, the better- armed Serbs seized most of northern Dalmatia and large parts of central and eastern Croatia.

But by winter the military balance had shifted and the Serbs began suing for peace. After the Croats recaptured a chunk of central Croatia, around Pakrac, the Serbs agreed to a United Nations- brokered peace plan which was adopted by the Security Council in February 1992, shortly after Croatia and Slovenia were recognised by the European Community. The plan was a compromise. It called for the deployment of peace- keepers all along the front line as the Serbs wanted, and for the return of a belt of territory to Croatian rule, as Zagreb demanded. The whole disputed territory was to be demilitarised.

Since the plan offered something for everyone, it froze fighting for a couple of months, but did not end the war. The Serbs treated the UN peace-keepers as a useful umbrella, who were there to divide Croatia into two sealed areas, like Cyprus. Behind UN lines they built an 'ethnically cleansed' state, and announced plans for a 'Union of Serbian states'.

It was safe to bet that fighting would soon resume. The Croats were never going passively to observe the one-sided implementation of the peace plan. But the failure of the UN peace plan in Croatia was overshadowed by the outbreak of fighting in Bosnia.

When Bosnia seceded, the Serbs seized about two-thirds of the republic. The Muslims and Croats at first joined forces against the better-armed Serbs in Bosnia. But after the Croats won control over the areas they prized, their interest in an alliance with Muslims waned, and they now fight each other in central Bosnia.

The fighting now raging in two republics ups the chances of conflict in other ethnic trouble-spots. The worst potential areas are the Muslim Sandzak region, which borders Bosnia but lies in Serbia, and Kosovo, where 2 million Albanians have declared independence from Serbia. One rule of thumb applies in the former Yugoslavia: the worst scenario can be relied on to come true.

(Map omitted)

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