Tudjman's risky game to win Krajina

Croatia's decision to expel the UN could lead to war beyond the country 's borders, writes Emma Daly from Zagreb Although Zagreb has lost control of a third of its territory, the country has done well
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The Independent Online
The gutted motorway service station is the giveaway - that and the white UN armoured vehicles and the razor wire: at this point the E-70 motorway roars into Sector West, one of the four United Nations-Protected Areas (Unpas) held by the rebelliousKrajina Serbs. The sunset gleams through the bullet holes peppering the road signs. The police uniforms change from the Teutonic grey-blue uniforms of the Croatian police to the royal blue camouflage favoured by the Serbs.

But thanks to the UN, there are no guns, no provocative signs,flags or other symbols of statehood. Instead, cars with Croatian plates speed along in the 27km dash through enemy territory, watched by Krajina Serb militiamen.

The motorway from Zagreb to Lipovac, on the Serbian border, opened this month to traffic from both sides, the first notable sign of progress in the economic accord between Croatia and the Krajina Serbs. The road, patrolled by the UN , is used almost exclusively by Croats.

In March 1994, the parties signed a truce that has held well. In November they signed an economic accord that has borne fruit this month with the opening of the motorway and an oil pipeline. Today, the "Zagreb Four" - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN - unveiled plans for a political settlement in Croatia.

Yet, the talk is of war, not of peace, because of President Franjo Tudjman's decision to expel UN peace-keepers from Croatia when their mandate expires at the end of March.

The Croatian leadership is impatient about the snail's pace of progress and is fearful that time will cement the partition of the country. Mr Tudjman has thrown down the gauntlet to the Serbs and the world.

Without the UN to police the zone of separation between the warring parties, to patrol the highway and broker talks, a resumption of war seems inevitable. What is worse, a renewed conflict is likely to involve Serbia, the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnia, then, in the worst-case scenario, the US, Russia, Greece, Turkey - anyone who wants a piece of the Balkan action.

This seems a suicidal path for Croatia to follow for, although the Zagreb government has lost control over almost one third of its territory, the country has done relatively well since the war with the Yugoslav army in 1991. Zagreb is far more prosperous than sanctions-struck Belgrade, with its smart shops, tide streets, bustling cafes and and trendy restaurants.

The European Union has held out a carrot of economic co-operation - if Zagreb allows the UN to renew its mandate in Croatia. But diplomats and UN officials say that there have been no signs of a change of heart and the UN is making preparations for withdrawal.

There is even talk of Nato playing a role, in case allied troops are called on to rescue the peace-keepers.

The Krajina Serbs are taking no chances. The UN has reported an increase in "carjackings" in Krajina by Serbs eager to seize equipment while they can, and peace-keepers are now providing armed escorts through the UN zones The conventional wisdom is that a resurgent Croatian army could probably defeat the Krajina Serbs - or at least drive them into the hills - but would be hard-pressed to take on forces swollen with allies from Bosnia and Serbia.

Thus, speculation centres upon a possible deal between Mr Tudjman and Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic, who sparked the first Croatian war. Mr Tudjman is sending his Foreign Minister to Belgrade "soon", and has said that he expects to exchange ambassadors this year.

But the Croatian president has been out-foxed by Mr Milosevic before and this is a dangerous game. If he is to win, he needs a cast-iron guarantee that Serbia will not intervene - or a promise from Washington of military support.

There have been no public signs of either. But, as the Contact Group peace plan for Bosnia crumbles under the weight of Serbian intransigence, there are hints that Mr Tudjman may have revived the dream of a Serb-Croat partition of Bosnia.

He recently attacked the Muslim-led Bosnian government for allegedly harbouring an ambition to create an Islamic republic stretching to the Adriatic. The statement came at a time when the shaky Bosnian Muslim-Croat federation needs all the support it canget.

The President, now in his seventies, will go down in Croatian history as the man who led most of the country to independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia But that is not enough - he wants to take back Krajina before he dies.

In this project he appears to be supported by most Croats and especially by the 300,000 refugees who have been forced out of their homes by the war.

But the road to national glory, which winds through the harsh border lands of Krajina, may lead to nowhere but blood, and an early grave for thousands more.