Krajina Serbs look like losing out

FROM EMMA DALY

in Pakrac

It was a slogan to live by and to die for, the battle cry of secessionist Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia: "Only unity can save the Serbs," it read and its Cyrillic acronym, "CCCC", was daubed on walls across the self- declared "Republic of Serb Krajina". Such words must sound hollow to the 15,000 Serbs who watched western Slavonia fall to the Croatian army in a two-day battle while their erstwhile sponsor in Belgrade and their allies in Bosnia stood by.

President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia apparently decided that discretion was the better part - particularly for one whose end is the lifting of sanctions. Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, whose army is strung out along a 1,200km front and who is fending off government attacks, probably felt he could not make good on his promise to defend his friends.

Today any soldiers and civilians left in western Slavonia who fear Croatian rule will join the exodus from Pakrac, via Okucani, to Bosanska Gradiska, across the border in Serb-held northern Bosnia, under a cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the UN and supported by Belgrade. "I also spoke with President Milosevic in Belgrade today and I think he was helpful also in facilitating the negotiations," Yasushi Akashi, the UN envoy, said yesterday. Mr Milosevic, he added, "called my attention to his statement yesterday, in which he criticised Croatia's military action into [western Slavonia] but he also criticised the Knin Serb bombardments of Zagreb and other cities".

The Krajina Serb leadership in Knin, already divided (by Mr Milosevic) over policy towards Zagreb, must decide whether more war will up the ante so far that Belgrade will feel compelled to send in the cavalry, or a decision to cut all ties.

The Serbian President, who is under international pressure to recognise Croatia and Bosnia to win an end to the economic embargo, has in the past encouraged the Krajina "prime minister", Borislav Mikelic, to make economic peace with Zagreb, in the face of fierce opposition from the hardline "president", Milan Martic.

The question is whether the forces of pragmatism can hold the line against the hard-liners.

Mr Martic is widely believed to have ordered the rocket attacks on Zagreb: despite surprising and conciliatory talk in the Croatian state media attributing the attacks to "rogue elements", the Orkan rockets are strategic weapons whose use could only have been ordered from on high.

The rocket attacks smack of spite tinged with desperation. "This is the Sarajevo method," said Taib Belu, a businessman inspecting his new green Rover, a window shattered by a bomblet. "When they lose a battle, they attack civilians." The Croatian offensive may harden hearts in Kninand set back peace efforts.

But although the Krajina Serb president may feel he has lost a battle, diplomatic sources in Zagreb suggest one may not really have been fought. Under one of the conspiracy theories circulating this week, the loss of western Slavonia, important to the Serbs only as a bargaining chip, was agreed in advance between Zagreb, Belgrade and part of the leadership in Knin.

"I am surprised at the lack of casualties . . . [the number] is insignificant," one UN source said. "It's a very suspicious situation, it's a very surprising situation." The official believes the Serbs had prior notice, evinced by the postponement of a memorial ceremony at Jasenovac concentration camp, close to the front line, planned for last Sunday, and the abandonment of Okucani, a Serb-held town in the sector where more than 100 UN staff were detained and then abandoned.

"The Krajina Serbs left, so the UN civilian police [who had been arrested] took it upon themselves to have an escape and evasion action," he continued. To explain the rocket attacks he added: "I think there's also some people who did not sign on" to a deal.

The Croatian soldiers and police deployed in the glorious spring sunshine around the town of Pakrac certainly looked happy and healthy, showing few signs of fatigue or of the fighting, save for the odd battle colour pinned to a shoulder - white was yesterday's choice.

Roads into western Slavonia, a lush agricultural land of rolling green fields and cool woods, were clear of check-points to the shock and delight of journalists accustomed to tight military control of disputed areas. The media emphasised the government's pledge to uphold the rights of Serb civilians in a campaign most uncharacteristic in this region.

"It's super, it's never been better," said Vladimir Stor, a reserve policeman on duty in Pakrac, whose Croatian officials were given 24 hours' notice of the offensive. The UN had only three hours warning. What diplomats want to know is when Belgrade found out.

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