Croatian forces fire on UN helicopters

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The Independent Online
IT WAS revealed yesterday that two UN helicopters have been shot at near the Croatian capital, Zagreb. Popular hostility towards the United Nations has risen sharply in Croatia in recent weeks. The shooting is likely to do little to improve relations between the Croatian government and the UN.

Meanwhile, UN officials vowed to use force, if necessary, to stop a march by thousands of Croatian refugees across UN lines into Serbian-occupied (and UN- administered) eastern Croatia. The UN defended the decision, saying the march could spark bloodshed, and even a renewed war between Croatia and Serbia.

UN officials refused to allocate blame for the attack on the helicopters - publicly, at least. There were broad hints, however, that rogue Croatian forces were responsible. Cedric Thornberry, one of the most senior UN officials in Yugoslavia, said he did not think 'for a single moment that Croatia has declared war on the United Nations'. But he added: 'It may have been new troops, or someone who had just come back from a slivovitz break.' If Croats are found to be responsible for the attack, it would be the clearest indication to date that some Croatian forces are out of control.

The shooting took place less than 20 miles south of Zagreb, on Monday evening. Anti-aircraft shells exploded between the helicopters, which were clearly marked with the UN insignia, as they flew from Zagreb to Daruvar, 90 miles to the east.

The Croats have constantly sought to present themselves as the 'moderates' in the Yugoslav wars, arguing that the Serbs are the only ones who breach internationally accepted norms. But UN officials have privately indicated that Croatian forces shot down a UN plane a month ago, killing the Italian crew of four. That attack caused the aid flights to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, to be suspended. The flights may be resumed this week, though there has been no official acknowledgement, let alone apology, by the Croats.

Following a blunt warning from Serbian forces occupying eastern Croatia that they will open fire on unarmed refugees returning to eastern Croatia 'as if they were terrorists', UN peace-keepers closed crossings with the nearby Croatian city of Osijek, and announced that force would be used to stop refugees from returning home.

'We are dealing with a very inflammable, very emotional situation, but we hope wiser counsels will prevail,' said Mr Thornberry, after last minute appeals to Zagreb to help cool the marchers' heads. But the threatened march - whether or not it takes place - has opened fresh wounds between the UN and Croatia. UN officials have accused Croatia of manipulating the refugee issue and of jeopardising the UN peace plan. The marchers say they have exposed the plan's failure in the face of Serbian intransigence.

UN troops have been unable to carry out the plan's two main points: to disarm Serbian forces, and enable refugees to return home. The UN forces are at a loss as to how to stop random killings of Croats who refuse to move out of the zone or to prevent the organised resettlement of the area with Bosnian Serb refugees.

A UN spokeswoman has claimed thousands of Bosnian Serbs have been bused into the area under the noses of the peace- keepers, and linked the influx with the recent brutal killings of more than 50 Croats and Hungarians, most of them elderly, who had refused to flee.

More than 75,000 Croats and Hungarians fled eastern Croatia during fighting last year, when local Serbs seized control of a rich belt of farmland along the Danube with the aid of the Yugoslav army. Only about 14,000 Croats remained behind in what is now a 'UN-protected zone'. The problem is that the de facto rulers of the zone are not the UN, but local Serbian warlords, who took over last year during the fighting. They have proclaimed a law which forbids the return of Croats whose relatives served in the Croatian army. This is a Catch-22, since most refugees have at least one combatant relative.

The refugees' agitation also embarrasses the Croatian government of President Franjo Tudjman. He is blamed for agreeing to the UN plan that promised so much, and delivered so little.

The brewing crisis between Croatia and the UN could spill over into fresh fighting if Serbs in Croatia carry out a plan to unite with Serbs in Bosnia. They are talking about one state, which they say will be a kingdom, ruled by the Yugoslav Prince, Tomislav, and his British wife, Linda.

Mr Tudjman plans one-to-one talks in Geneva today with Dobrica Cosic, President of the rump Yugoslavia. The first summit between the leaders of Yugoslavia and Croatia is the result of diplomacy by the peace envoys Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen. After a meeting yesterday in Geneva with the two envoys, Alija Izetbegovic, the President of Bosnia, declared that a plan to demilitarise besieged Sarajevo could be put into action before the onset of winter.

Mr Izetbegovic said the plan foresees two exits from the city, on the north and south sides. It could form a blueprint for demilitarising other besieged towns in Bosnia. He also said he hoped UN humanitarian flights to Sarajevo would resume this week. UN officials have warned that up to 400,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo face starvation if aid flights are not resumed.

SARAJEVO - Mortar shells crashed into Sarajevo yesterday, killing at least three people and wounding 24, AP reports.

UN officials warned that deaths from cold and hunger in Bosnia this winter could far outnumber those from the fighting. Serbian air attacks were reported on several Bosnian towns. In Sarajevo, mortar shells landed near a main shopping centre, a pedestrian shopping street and in the old Turkish quarter early yesterday.

Letters, page 22

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