Croats dismiss fears of new war

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The Independent Online
President Franjo Tudjman has reiterated Croatia's determination"if necessary" to retake the Serb-held Krajina territory after UN peace-keepers are forced to leave in March. But he scoffed at fears of a renewed war with Serbia.

Tension is rising, however, and the UN mission is extremely concerned that its departure, ordered by Mr Tudjman, will provoke a new and wider conflict.

"The Krajina Serbs and the Belgrade leadership know we are capable of liberating our land by force of arms. The whole world is behind us in this question," Mr Tudjman told the German magazine Der Spiegel. "If necessary, we won't shy away from that."

The Croatian army has used the past three years of relative peace to rearm and retrain, but is still too weak to defeat the combined Serb armies of the Balkans, analysts say.

The UN reported increased tension in southern and western Krajina yesterday, with far less co-operation from the Croatian army and more restrictions on UN movements. There were sporadic gun-fights on Saturday night, while in the north Serb troops fired on three helicopters suspected of ferrying supplies to Croatia's Bosnian allies in Bihac in north-western Bosnia.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, warned at the weekend that a UN withdrawal would be "a disaster for the peace process in the former Yugoslavia", but Mr Tudjman remains unmoved. "It's final. We have an independent policy, we aren't the servants of the international community. The UN is a nuisance to us. It kept the status quo instead of forcing the Serbs to make peace."

He repeated the standard Croatian complaint about the mission, in which 15,000 troops based in four UN protected areas of Krajina keep the warring factions apart: "The Serbs used the UN presence to reinforce their positions. And we were prevented from carrying out military operations."

Serbs in Krajina do not believe Mr Tudjman will fulfil his threat, believing rather that the Croatian leader is bluffing in the hope of extracting international concessions. But they are bullish about their prospects. "They want to expel Unprofor [the UNprotection force] to go to war," said one young soldier. "But Croatia doesn't have a shred of a chance to win a here - although they are stronger than they were three years ago."

The people of Krajina - who boast of their history as defenders of the border between East and West - are hardy warriors. Alone, they probably could not defeat Zagreb's army, but they are not likely to stand alone if Mr Tudjman fulfils his threats.

Many fear that Belgrade - or at least the Bosnian Serbs - would come to Krajina's aid, sparking a Balkan war. Mr Tudjman dismissed such fears, saying he was "sure" President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia would not intervene. He admitted that Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, might, but claimed his army had been weakened by its failure to take the Bihac pocket.

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