Croatian engineers struggle to save dam

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The Independent Online
CROATIAN engineers were fighting yesterday to save a large dam from collapsing and washing away the homes of 20,000 villagers. Water was pouring through three holes in the 65-metre-high Peruca dam, 25 miles north of Split, which fell to the Croats on Thursday.

Britain is sending a team of engineers to Croatia to help save the dam from bursting, government officials said yesterday. The Overseas Development Administration said the three-man team would leave for Croatia today to advise local experts on how to repair the hydroelectric dam.

'The humanitarian consequences of the collapse of the dam could be horrific. We have the capacity to help,' said the Overseas Development Minister, Baroness Chalker. Officials said they were responding to a request from Croatia for help in dealing with the emergency. A senior Krajina Serb commander said yesterday his forces had agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire to allow repairs to the dam. 'Our side has accepted a proposal by the commander of UN peace-keepers in Yugoslavia, Lieutenant-General Satish Nambiar, to cease firing on Croat positions,' Colonel Stojan Spanovic said.

There are conflicting reports over the cause of the holes. The most serious, at the base of the structure, has sparked fears that it could crumble and flood more than a dozen villages along the river Cetina. Bottled up behind the dam is a 12-mile-long reservoir containing half a billion cubic metres of water. An eyewitness said the dam's control room looked like 'a twisted hunk of metal'.

Serbs and Croats traded insults over who wrecked the structure, formerly the biggest supplier of electricity in Dalmatia. The ousted Serbs blamed the holes on Croatian artillery shells fired during the brief battle. The Croats insist that the Serbs, who formerly controlled the dam, detonated several mines before they fled.

Tonci Caracic, one of a team of Croatian inspectors, said he was confident the dam would not give way. He said engineers had started a process of 'controlled drainage' of the reservoir to ease the pressure of the water.

Croatia's Prime Minister, Hrvoje Sarinic, visiting Peruca, said the Serbs tried to sabotage the dam in revenge for losing control. 'A catastrophe was close but was narrowly averted thanks to the speed with which our forces took the area,' he said.

Officials in the town of Sinj, a few miles downstream, said they had no immediate plan to evacuate the villages by the Cetina.

Local Serbs in their stronghold, Knin, protested over the Croatian seizure of the dam to Lt Gen Nambiar. They said it was the UN's duty to ensure the Croatian army left the dam immediately. Under the international peace plan for the republic, brokered by Cyrus Vance, the Serb-held Krajina region is a UN-protected zone. In spite of international condemnation and the threat of sanctions, Croatia's offensive in the Serbian-held Krajina shows no sign of slowing.

Evidently cheered by his military successes, Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, yesterday began a tour of the frontline Lika region. Croatia goes to the polls soon and the recovery of territory seized by Serbs in 1991 is certain to be a burning issue. More than 750,000 refugees from Krajina and Bosnia want to go home.

In a letter to European Community countries, Mr Tudjman promised Croatia would abide by a UN resolution calling on Zagreb to cease attacks on Krajina.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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