EC stops short of sanctions on Croatia

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THE EC yesterday failed to impose economic sanctions on Croatia, but agreed to deliver a warning to Zagreb that further excesses in Bosnia would not be tolerated.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, once an advocate of lifting the preferential trading advantages Croatia enjoys with the EC as a possible prelude to sanctions, said he was happy with the message the Community was sending to Zagreb and denied it was too weak a response to Croatian ethnic cleansing. 'When the Croats are continuing to behave in Mostar and elsewhere much as the Serbs have behaved in the north, it is sometimes hard to explain why Serbia should be penalised and not Croatia,' he said.

The EC has managed with difficulty to hold a common line towards former Yugoslavia. The Germans supported by several member states pointed out yesterday that economic sanctions would send 750,000 refugees flooding into Europe.

Mr Hurd admitted such considerations had coloured thinking yesterday when the 12 foreign ministers heard a long account from the peace envoy Lord Owen of the state of the Geneva talks. 'We are aware of the refugee problem and that is partly why I haven't pressed harder for a decision to remove the preferential measures. We have given a strong warning in an authoritative way. We are doing what we can do,' Mr Hurd said, stressing the importance of humanitarian aid. The French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, said: 'We will make it quite clear in Zagreb that Croatia is on notice: the EC is ready to impose sanctions if there is no change in behaviour.'

The messenger will be Willy Claes, the Foreign Minister of Belgium, which holds the EC presidency. The usual EC diplomatic mission - a troika of presidents past, present and future - was abandoned because of problems Greece, the future president, has with Macedonia.

Mr Claes visits Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb this week to tell President Franjo Tudjman that unless Croatia 'modifies its behaviour' trade privileges will be removed and sanctions may follow. 'No one questions the right to send a strong signal to Croatia, the question today was 'if we apply sanctions, where will it get us?' 'said a senior EC diplomat yesterday. Ministers were adamant that their decision reflected a desire to put pressure on Serbia and to encourage peace talks rather than a reluctance to act against Croatia.

Lord Owen said that the Serbs and Croats seemed to be rowing back on their commitments to guarantee Muslim territory.

Mr Claes said the EC was anxious to get the three warring parties, including the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, to the Geneva peace talks. Mr Claes will reiterate in Sarajevo the EC's commitment to a peace accord that 'is viable for Muslim communities'. In Belgrade he will warn Slobodan Milosevic that sanctions will stay as long as ethnic cleansing continues.

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