Owen counters threats from Zagreb

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LORD OWEN countered Croatian threats of military intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina, saying there is already a 'very substantial' Croatian army presence in the country.

In an interview to be broadcast tonight on Channel 4's Dispatches, the international mediator said: ' I must say that I think it's an issue (Croatian soldiers in Bosnia) that the world ought to address more strongly. They addressed it in terms of the Serbs in the spring of 1992 with very considerable strength of purpose, but they have to a great extent ignored it in the last six months as it's built up.' Lord Owen, however, ruled out imposing sanctions on Croatia, saying the European Union felt it was better to criticise Zagreb diplomatically.

The interview is significant in light of sabre-rattling rhetoric by the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, and the Defence Minister, Gojko Susak. Both men said last week that if Bosnian government forces did not end an offensive against Croatian communities in central Bosnia, then Croatia would become 'directly involved'.

The warnings are ironic because the Bosnian Croat army, the HVO, has depended on Croatia for support from almost the outset of the war. In recent weeks there have been reports of Croatian army tanks and men reinforcing the HVO in various places, most notably near Gornji Vakuf and in Mostar, where the HVO is laying siege to the eastern Muslim side of the city.

UN officials and diplomats have dismissed Zagreb's mutterings as empty gestures. The threats have also failed to make any impression on the Bosnians. 'We take it as one of those unfortunate diplomatic excursions . . . we do not believe that it will actually take place,' Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Prime Minister, told reporters in Vienna yesterday before talks with the Croatian Foreign Minister, Mate Granic.

The government of President Tudjman is under mounting criticism from various sectors in Croatia and abroad for being the architect of a Bosnian partition plan, now recognised as disastrous to the Croatian national interest. The Dispatches programme tonight reveals how Mr Tudjman helped mastermind the break-up of Bosnia and how the plan has backfired. Tens of thousands of Bosnian Croats are being evicted from their homes as a by-product of Zagreb's policy. The Croats have failed to take by force the territory they wanted and have, in fact, lost at least six towns and many villages to the Muslims over the last nine months.

The winter now favours the Bosnian army's lightly armed infantry structure. The Muslims are expected to press ahead with an offensive in the Lasva Valley until spring, unless they are able to get the concessions they want from the Serbs and Croats at peace talks in Geneva starting on 18 January - an unlikely prospect.

Lord Owen said yesterday upon his arrival in Vienna that the warring parties in Bosnia were 'not taking too much notice of the United Nations' and were content to fight on. He also suggested that UN forces in Bosnia could be withdrawn in the spring if peace talks make no progress in the next two months. 'If they're really just using the peace process as a shelter behind which they continue the war, come the end of the winter I think people will have to reassess the role of the UN forces,' he said.

BRUSSELS - Belgium has told the UN that it wants to recall the outspoken commander of UN forces in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Francis Briquemont, AFP reports.

General Briquemont succeeded General Philippe Morillon of France as the UN's senior soldier in Bosnia in July last year, and has frequently expressed anger at the UN Protection Force's (Unprofor) lack of means to protect civilians in Bosnia and stop attacks on aid convoys.

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