Serbs and Croats meet for secret peace talks

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SECRET talks between Serbs and Croats to end the war in Croatia have been taking place in Norway and could lead to a meeting between the presidents of the two former Yugoslav republics in Oslo under the patronage of the international peace mediator, Thorvald Stoltenberg.

In Belgrade a top official in the government of the breakaway Krajina region in Croatia, Branko Filipovic, confirmed that a meeting took place earlier this week near Oslo. The two sides, led by the Krajina Serb leader, Goran Hadzic, and the head of Croatia's national security committee, Hrvoje Sarinic, discussed a ceasefire, the reopening of road and rail links, and an agreement on economic co-operation.

Mr Filipovic denied Krajina Serbs controlling a quarter of Croatian territory since 1991 were ready to sign an overall agreement with the government of President Franjo Tudjman. 'Mr Tudjman at the last minute insisted the agreement should be worded so that Krajina recognised it is an integral part of Croatia, which we rejected,' he said.

But in an attempt to woo moderate Serbs in Krajina before the expected meeting with President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Mr Tudjman announced in Zagreb that he will guarantee the complete autonomy of majority Serb districts if Krajina accepts overall Croatian sovereignty.

Mr Tudjman said an autonomy deal with Knin-based Serb rebels could be worked out within two weeks and would include Serbs controlling the regional police forces as well as education. He added that the sparsely populated and mountainous Krajina region could expect generous subsidies from Croatia's budget to stimulate a ruined economy. 'The peace accord could be guaranteed by Nato with a mandate to use force including air strikes on all those who violate the ceasefire,' he said.

In a conciliatory gesture to Serbia, Mr Tudjman said Croatia will back lifting international sanctions against the rump Yugoslavia, now comprising only Serbia and Montenegro, as soon as a deal on Krajina is hatched.

The Croatian initiative is designed to dovetail with the 'global solution' to the conflict now favoured by Mr Stoltenberg and his fellow mediator Lord Owen.

Krajina's hardline Serb leaders can be counted on to oppose a Zagreb-Belgrade agreement recognising Croatian sovereignty over Krajina no matter what kind of autonomy Zagreb offered. They want to join up with Bosnian Serbs and Serbia proper.

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