Krajina's deposed 'president' in vain quest for return

Balkan turmoil: Former Serb leader vows to 'do an Arafat' 8 Muslims at risk as pull-out begins

Europe Editor

Driven from his homeland with 150,000 of his compatriots, branded with responsibility for one of the most humiliating defeats in Serb military history, and named as a war crimes suspect by a UN tribunal, Milan Martic could be forgiven for thinking that fate played a cruel trick tempting him into politics. But three weeks after Croatian forces recaptured most of the rebel Krajina Serb region, causing Mr Martic to flee Knin, nationalism still burns in the breast of the self-styled Krajina Serb president.

Mr Martic, a rural policeman catapulted into the annals of infamy during the Krajina Serb revolt against Croatian rule in 1990-91, fell out of sight when President Franjo Tudjman's troops stormed Krajina on 4 August. Radio stations in Slovenia and Muslim-held Bosnian territory relayed rumours that Mr Martic had committed suicide, or that a Krajina Serb police unit had killed him as he tried to escape to Serb-held Bosnia.

By 8 August, it was clear that Mr Martic was very much alive. Bosnian Serb television broadcast a statement from Mr Martic, said to have been issued from a Croat-encircled Krajina village 25 miles north of Knin, in which he proclaimed: "As long as one Krajina person is alive, we must not recognise this occupation. We must do everything to return to our centuries-old homes."

Next day in Banja Luka, the citadel of die-hard Serb nationalism, he held an emergency meeting with Radovan Karadzic, his fellow international pariah and war crimes suspect. The Bosnian Serb and Krajina Serb leaders discussed measures to assist refugees pouring out of Krajina, and worked on a plan to reverse Croatia's war gains in Krajina and western Bosnia.

By this time, Mr Martic was lacing his remarks with a mixture of self- pity and deluded grandeur as well as defiant optimism. "I am convinced that, even though my position is difficult ... I will come back as the winner, because I know the mentality of our people."

However, other Krajina Serb leaders, including Mr Martic's own prime minister, the former dentist Milan Babic, were already blaming him for Croatia's crushing victory in Krajina. They alleged that Mr Martic and the Krajina Serb military commander, General Mile Mrksic, had ordered an evacuation of Krajina rather than resistance in battle.

On 12 August, Mr Martic gave his reply. He said a fake Radio Knin, run by Croatians, had sown confusion among Serb civilians and soldiers and added: "I ordered the inhabitants to take cover in nearby villages but not to leave Krajina. There was no question of withdrawing the army." Still holed up in Banja Luka, Mr Martic appealed to the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, last Friday to secure a Croatian withdrawal from Krajina and the return of Serb civilians. The appeal fell on deaf ears, for the reality is that Mr Martic is a deposed rebel on the run, wanted by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague for ordering the bombardment of civilians in Zagreb last May.

There remains nothing of Mr Martic's self-proclaimed state but eastern Slavonia. That is under the sway of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's President, who has dropped Mr Martic as quickly as he elevated him in 1990.