UN 'must stay in Croatia to prevent war'

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The Independent Online
WAR IS likely to erupt again in Croatia if the United Nations peace-keeping mandate in Serb- occupied parts of the republic is not renewed, a senior Western diplomat warned yesterday.

The diplomat, familiar with UN operations across the former Yugoslavia, said the chances of a second Croatian war breaking out in March depended greatly on whether a solution could be found to the Bosnian conflict.

'We have to see another month of discussion on Bosnia to see how easy it will be to have the UN mandate in Croatia renewed,' he said. 'I think many Croats realise that without a renewal of the mandate they will get another war.'

The UN sent about 14,000 troops and civilians to Croatia last March to keep a fragile peace between Croats and Serbs. They were deployed mainly in border regions of Croatia that were conquered by the Serbs after war broke out in June 1991. Since then, Croatia has grown increasingly frustrated with the UN presence, arguing it has helped to consolidate Serbian control of the occupied territories. The UN mandate expires at the end of February.

The diplomat, who has negotiated with the Croats and the Serbian authorities in the occupied zones, said if the mandate was not renewed, the Serbs would attempt to take back large amounts of weapons they have handed over to the UN forces under the terms of a ceasefire agreed last January.

'The Serbs would raid the arms storage dumps. We have enough of their arms under bicycle locks to start the Third World War. The Serbs would do that as a pre- emptive measure because they would fear that the Croats were coming to get them. There is no way we could protect those dumps because the others are just too heavily armed.'

The diplomat said that there had been regular violations of the ceasefire lines since the UN forces arrived, and most had been committed by the Croats. 'If I were a Croat, I would do what they are doing. They want to prevent the situation from solidifying in the UN sectors, and they are terribly frustrated.

'The infringements are mostly small-arms stuff, but there is some infiltration by Croatian agents provocateurs, or by explosives guys who want to blow up something, and there is the odd murder here and there. The Serbs have been ready to play their part, too, by blowing up a house or robbing an old Croatian woman . . .

'But there has been much less of that since, say, the middle of November. I believe the Belgrade people (Serbia's leaders) warned these Serbs that they were being self-destructive if they didn't take their extremists under control.'

Some Croatian leaders believe their republic could recapture its lost territory this spring because the overall Serbian military position has deteriorated. But the senior Western diplomat said that he believed Croatia's government would renew the UN peace-keepers' mandate, despite threatening not to do so unless the mandate is expanded to allow the UN to expel the Serbian authorities in the occupied zones by force.

'It is a very, very dangerous situation around the borders in Croatia,' he said, 'because of the amounts of arms in peoples' hands, the degree of frustration and anger of the Croats, and the fears of the Serbs.'