Croats defy threat of war from Serbs: Zagreb plans to reopen a vital bridge within range of Serbian guns, despite warnings of possible new conflict

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The Independent Online
DEFYING both the worst bombardment by rebel Serbs in months and UN warnings of renewed warfare, Croatia went ahead with final preparations to re-open a strategic bridge at Maslenica yesterday.

Three barges transporting sections of the 279m pontoon bridge left for Maslenica on schedule. But Serbian rebels in their mountain fastness at Knin are furious, and at least eight civilians were wounded overnight when Serbs rained 70 bombs on Karlovac, an industrial town 25 miles south-west of the capital, Zagreb.

The attack followed Serbian threats to wreak destruction in Croatia if Maslenica bridge, near the port of Zadar in western Croatia, was re-opened without their permission. Serbs also fired rockets into the town of Ogulin and bombarded Osijek, in the east.

United Nations officials earlier this week criticised Croatia's decision to repair the bridge as 'unilateral', and said it could spark off all-out war between Zagreb and rebel Serbs. Maslenica bridge lay in Serbian hands until Croatian forces seized back the region this year.

Pointing to 'bloodcurdling threats on both sides', Cedric Thornberry, UN civil affairs chief for the region, warned that Serbs had the capacity to fire missiles on Zagreb and other cities. Mr Thornberry was said to have handed President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia a note from Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, condemning the re-opening.

Amid fears of renewed heavy fighting in the republic, the International Red Cross announced staff were pulling out from frontline towns in Croatia, including Dubrovnik. The decision poses a threat to relief work among 650,000 refugees.

Croatia's leaders deny harbouring plans to reconquer the Serb-held Krajina region by force but insist there can be no delay to repairing the bridge - a vital link to Croatia's seaboard. They have promised a ceremonial opening before a gathering of foreign diplomats and officials led by President Tudjman. Dug in only four miles east of Maslenica on a well-appointed hill, Serbs could turn the opening ceremony into a massacre. They will have little difficulty firing their cannons at the bridge.

This is a war of nerves. The Croatian leaders do not court international censure, but are under pressure from their own public to stand firm against the Serbs, and if necessary, against the rest of the world. Most Croatian opposition leaders argue that President Tudjman is too soft in handling the Krajina problem.

The Serbs face a separate dilemma. If they spark off a serious conflict with Croatia without getting the green light from President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Belgrade may withhold vital military support. With war still raging in Bosnia and Serbia gripped by an economic crisis, Mr Milosevic may feel in no mood to open a second front in Croatia.

In Bosnia, battles between Muslims and Croats around Mostar have blocked UN supply routes into central Bosnia, where Croats and Muslims are fighting for control around the towns of Novi Travnik and Donji Vakuf. The UN also reported artillery exchanges between Croats and Muslims around the town of Fojnica, which General Philippe Morillon, the former UN commander, earlier proclaimed 'an oasis of peace'.

Serbs ended a blockade on fuel tankers entering Sarajevo and turned on natural gas supplies. But UN officials warn the energy situation there remains acute, as water and electricity supplies are only partly restored.

(Photograph omitted)