The situation was described as 'extremely dangerous' last night by Cedric Thornberry, a veteran negotiator and the deputy chief of the UN's 23,000-strong force. Officials said they were puzzled why the Croatian attack on the Maslenica bridge had taken place, just as the Serbian side was finally showing signs of flexibility and had agreed to participate in high-level talks that very day. UN officials fear that the eruption of hostilities after hundreds of hours of UN-brokered talks will play into the hands of extremists on both sides.
Hundreds of refugees are in immediate danger, because the Croatian side was shelling the village of Benkovac, officials said, and the Serbian side was racing to bring up reinforcements from stockpiles in the self-declared Serbian republic of Krajina. 'They are armed to the teeth and all the roads in the Krajina are clogged with a huge number of tanks,' a senior military commander said yesterday. A large proportion of the heavy weaponry held under UN supervision in Krajina had been removed at gunpoint and unarmed military observers were powerless to prevent it happening.
Besides the attacks on the Krajina enclave, there were Croat attacks in the so-called 'pink zones', areas of Croatia conquered by Serbian forces and still occupied by paramilitaries pending negotiations on their return.
Cyrus Vance, the UN negotiator, persuaded the Serbs and Croats to lay down their arms after the siege of Vukovar, which left thousands of Croatian defenders dead, but the occupation of large tracts of Croatia by paramilitary forces loyal to Serbia has remained unresolved, while the international community turned its attention to mediating the conflict in Bosnia.
The causus belli in the fighting, which began over the weekend, was ostensibly Croatia's impatience with the progress of peace talks aimed at getting the Serbs to allow a bridge to be built over a vital inlet linking central Croatia with the Dalmatian coast, but many suspect that President Franjo Tudjman has used this as an excuse to grab back land Serbia seized from Croatia in the war which ended on 2 January last year.
Citing other recent land-grabs which the international community has allowed to stand, the Croatian officials regularly point out that the best hope of regaining their territory is by force. If left to UN talks to sort out, the argument runs, the territory would never be returned, like Arab lands occupied by the Israelis.
But far from delivering a clean surgical strike against exhausted Serbian positions, the Croats will have seriously miscalculated if they believe they can successfully grab back territory by force, senior diplomatic sources said yesterday. The Croatian gambit prompted an immediate response by Serbian forces, which burst into unprotected UN depots where heavy weapons were being held pending a final peace settlement, and began a mobilisation in the 'pink zones', where the UN has only a token unarmed presence to try to keep law and order.
With the backing of the Yugoslav federal army, Serbs - who make up 13 per cent of the 4.8 million population of Croatia - conquered and occupied about a third of Croatia's territory in the fighting which preceded the war in Bosnia.
In what the UN calls Sector South, where the fighting flared yesterday, the UN deploys three battalions of peace-keepers, but elsewhere in the 'pink zones' no troops are allowed to deploy.