One Serb commander, known by his nom de guerre, Captain Dragan, said this week that he had deployed the Italian unit in the Velebit mountains north of the Croatian port of Zadar. Describing them as brave and well-trained, he told the Belgrade-based news agency Tanjug: 'Would they be in the Velebit mountains if they were not as professional as they are?'
Little is known about the Garibaldi Unit, but Tanjug said the Italians had 'carried out numerous reconnaissance and sabotage actions behind enemy lines'. It said the Italians were part of a pro-Serb international force of 6,000 to 7,000 fighters that also included Russians and Romanians. Military analysts said this figure seemed on the high side.
That some Italians should side with Serbs is at first sight surprising, since Italian sympathies have been largely with Catholic Croatia and Slovenia and against Orthodox Serbia. Italian mercenaries fighting in the Yugoslav wars clearly have no support from the Rome government.
However, their involvement reflects a longstanding territorial dispute, originally between Italy and Yugoslavia, in the northern Adriatic. This found expression in 1919 when the Italian poet and political adventurer Gabriele d'Annunzio seized the port of Fiume (Rijeka), which was also claimed by the newly-born Yugoslav state.
After the Second World War, Yugoslavia acquired the Istrian peninsula as far north as Trieste. The frontiers were confirmed in several treaties, the last of which was the Osimo accord of 1975. But some Italians, including tens of thousands who left Istria between 1946 and 1954, remained unhappy about the loss of territory. When Yugoslavia began to break up in 1990 they argued that treaties between Italy and a disintegrating state were no longer valid.
Politicians who espoused this view came from several parties, including the Socialist Party, one of Italy's largest, and the Liberal Party. However, the Italian government joined its 11 European Community partners in January 1992 in recognising Croatia and Slovenia within their existing frontiers.
The main official Italian demand now is that Croatia should guarantee the rights of its Italian minority, estimated at more than 15,000. However, Captain Dragan said his Italian volunteers 'view the Osimo accord as the sale of part of Italy. They really believe that territories that once belonged to Italy ought to be handed back to Italy . . . We have a common interest: the struggle against the current Croatian authorities. The enemy of our friend is also our enemy.'
Private Italian involvement in the Balkan wars is an alarming development for Croatia, since the Zagreb government faces simultaneous crises on other fronts. First, the war between Croatia and its rebel Serbs has mounted in intensity this year, and the Croats have made little progress in regaining land lost in 1991.
Second, relations with Slovenia are complicated by the fact that there is a potential Slovenian claim on Croatian Istria. Lastly, there is an increasingly vocal autonomy movement within Istria itself, where large numbers of people dislike the Croatian nationalist government led by President Franjo Tudjman.
For the government, control of Istria is essential since it was a thriving area for Western tourism before the wars broke out in the summer of 1991. However, tourism has slumped in the last two years, depriving the government of hard currency and causing havoc to the Istrian economy.
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