Sabotaged dam 'threatens to drown villages'

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The Independent Online
CROATS recaptured a strategic hydro-electric dam in southern Croatia from Serbian fighters yesterday but fear that the retreating Serbs have sabotaged the structure which now threatens to release millions of tonnes of water on to thousands of villagers living downstream.

Engineers escorted by Croatian troops went on an urgent night mission to inspect the Peruca dam south of Krajina after the Serbs detonated three mines across the 600ft long dam yesterday before their retreat.

Officials in the town of Sinj, seven miles south of the dam, said the blasts considerably damaged the structure. About 20,000 people are reported to have been evacuated, but another 10,000 are thought still to be at risk.

If the dam were to collapse, a twisting mountain reservoir about 15 miles long could devastate the fertile Sinj valley below.

Fighting between Serbs and Croats for control of villages on the edge of the Serb-held Krajina region showed no sign of abating.

In Belgrade, Goran Hadzic, president of the breakaway Krajina enclave, claimed his troops were rapidly retaking most of the villages seized earlier by Croats, with the aid of fresh supplies and volunteers from Serbia.

Dressed in battle fatigues, he insisted that Krajina forces 'have already won back 80 per cent of the territory seized by the Croats'. Mr Hadzic alleged the Croatian attack on Krajina took place with the secret backing of France, Germany and other United Nations members. 'We have discovered the French UN troops were spying on our positions and co-operating fully with Croatia all the time,' he said. 'Every single civilian in the villages taken by the Croats has been slaughtered,' he went on. 'Such atrocites have never been seen in any war.'

As artillery battles raged on over the barren, flat hinterland behind the port of Zadar, 10 UN peace-keepers found themselves stranded for a second day in a village on the frontline.

Earlier, a group of 13 French peace-keepers who were taken hostage by Serbian forces as a form of insurance against a Croatian push on the frontline town of Benkovac were released by the Serbs after UN commanders in the area protested, and France threatened to attack Serbian positions if its men were endangered.

The Peruca dam and hydro- electric power station is the latest item on a shopping list of important installations which the Croats have decided to recover at any cost from Serbian rebels by force after UN-brokered negotiations got nowhere.

The UN Security Council has sharply condemned the Croatian offensive, fearing a renewal of all- out hostilities between Serbia and Croatia at a time when the UN is desperately trying to cap the war in Bosnia. Croatia claims the offensive is a limited operation to recover lands assigned to Croatia in the UN peace plan for Bosnia, and which the Serbs have refused to give up.

Like Maslenica bridge and Zemunik airport, which the Croats took back earlier this week, Peruca dam has been at the centre of long and fruitless negotiations between Croats and Serbs over its final custody. If the Croats succeed in prising all three locations out of Serbian hands they will solve their most pressing energy and communications concerns, and deprive the Krajina Serbs of their biggest bargaining cards.

Hundreds of Serbian volunteers have poured into Krajina this week to join Serbian paramilitary leaders, including 'Arkan' and 'Captain Dragan' and their various units, known as the 'Tigers' and the 'White Eagles'.

The President of the rump Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cosic, recently ruled out direct military intervention by the Yugoslav army in Krajina. A more pressing concern for Serbia is the escalating number of attacks by Bosnian Muslims on the Drina valley which divides Serbia and Bosnia. Serbia yesterday accused Bosnian forces for the second time of firing shells across the Drina, which it said were aimed at the hydro-electric dam at Perucac, near Bajina Basta.

BUCHAREST - A second sanctions-busting river convoy of barges carrying oil reached Serbian Danube waters yesterday, Romanian offiials said, AFP reports.