Narrow bridge keeps Croatia from disaster

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The Independent Online
A THIN and desolate island off the Adriatic coast is all that stands between Croatia and disaster. With Croatia's normal transport routes in chaos because of Serbian territorial gains in 1991, the island of Pag provides the only link between Croatia's northern and southern halves.

Pag is not one of those islands where tourists sip drinks in the sun and splash in the sea. Much of it is uninhabited except for a few shepherds and their flocks. It is dry, rocky and wild. For all that, Pag is more important at the moment than all Croatia's hundreds of other islands put together.

That is clear from the anti-aircraft guns that are prominently placed around a narrow bridge that connects the southern tip of Pag to the Croatian mainland, near the port of Zadar. Every day thousands of industrial lorries, military vehicles and private cars cross this bridge, carrying people and essential supplies between northern and southern Croatia.

At Zigljen in northern Pag, they board ferries that shuttle continuously between the island and the little mainland port of Prizna. Ordinary Croats often wait for hours to get on a ferry, because industrial and military vehicles have priority. Last Wednesday hundreds of cars were jammed in a queue on the mainland side of the channel.

The bridge at Pag is out of range of the artillery owned by Croatia's breakaway Serbian minority who, with the help of the Serbian-led Yugoslav armed forces, conquered about one quarter of Croatia in 1991. But the bridge is within easy striking distance of Serbian warplanes based at Banja Luka in northern Bosnia. If the bridge were hit, then Zagreb and Croatia's northern heartland would be severed from major southern ports such as Zadar, Sibenik, Split and Dubrovnik.

However, the immediate threat to the bridge comes not from Serbian aircraft but from the sheer volume of traffic passing across it. The bridge, which stands high above the water, was not designed to take the strain of enormous vehicles. 'The only link between northern and southern Croatia, that leading over the Pag bridge and Pag Island, is on the very edge of endurance. The Pag bridge must be rebuilt as fast as possible and freed from heavy loads,' the Croatian newspaper Vjesnik said yesterday.

The Pag bridge would be less important if it were not for the difficulties experienced by Croatia in re-opening the Maslenica bridge, a few miles to the south on the mainland. This bridge, when working, obviates the need for a ferry trip for vehicles travelling between northern and southern Croatia. The Croatian armed forces recaptured the Maslenica bridge last January in an offensive that violated a United Nations-brokered ceasefire.

Last month President Franjo Tudjman presided over a ceremony declaring a new pontoon bridge at Maslenica to be opened to traffic. But the Serbs quickly cut short Croatia's hopes by shelling the new structure. It is too dangerous now to repair it completely or to try to keep moving traffic over it. Reports in Croatia's official media suggest that the bridge's stability is not seriously damaged. However, these same reports say that the bridge took a direct hit last Tuesday evening. 'Short, frequent and dangerous attacks continued throughout the day,' said Vjesnik.

In the meantime, a team of government technical experts travelled to Pag yesterday to see what could be done to reinforce the island's bridge. Time is running short. If the Serb-Croat war flares up again in earnest in Croatia, then the Pag bridge is likely to be one of the first targets for Serbian attack.

(Map omitted)

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