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Strange hold of Vukovar A town that's turned icon

BOSNIA Marcus Tanner on the town that became an icon
A RUINED city on the Danube ringed with vineyards may yet bedevil US hopes of pulling off a diplomatic breakthrough in former Yugoslavia's bloody conflict.

Almost four years after its fall, Vukovar remains to Croats a symbol of shame that cries out for revenge, while to Serbs it is a precious reminder that when it comes to a fight, Serbs can beat Croats.The fall of the Serb- held Krajina region has prompted excited speculation about trade-offs and deals between Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia: Milosevic would let the Croats retake Knin, in return for keeping the belt of land around Vukovar, known as eastern Slavonia.

It is a neat idea, but the Balkans rarely conform to such schemes. Tudjman would face a political crisis if he surrendered the town, and to disabuse public fears on this account, he announced instead that Croatia would retake the town with force if necessary "within months".

The reason is because to Croats, Vukovar has become a myth - a terrible defeat, but also a symbol of martyrdom. The town was an unusual candidate as an icon. In Tito's era it was a rather Communist place, with a high degree of intermarriage between Serbs and Croats. Tudjmans' HDZ party failed to win it in the 1990 elections that brought him to power and the town elected a Serb Communist as mayor.

What transformed Vukovar's image was the siege by the Yugoslav army and Serb paramilitaries that began in September 1991 and ended on 17 November. While the battle raged, Zagreb radio echoed to ballads about "Croatia's Stalingrad", and posters proclaimed "Vuko-WAR" from street corners. Since it fell, Croats have not forgotten, or forgiven, the blanket shelling that reduced the town to rubble; the sight of thousands of Croats snaking out of the town to exile; nor the songs of the victorious Serbs: Slobo daj' salatu, klacemo hravati - "Slobo [Milosevic] bring the salad, we're cutting up the Croats"; nor the victors' revenge on Vukovar hospital, where all but 60 of the 420 patients were executed and hurled into a pit.

What makes the town such a hot potato is that Serbs are scarcely less hooked on Vukovar than the Croats. General Tus, the Croat chief of staff, told me the week it fell that by concentrating their forces on Vukovar, the Serbs lost the chance to overrun the rest of Croatia. "We may lose Vukovar but Vukovar has saved Croatia," he said.

The Serbs show no sign of being ready to part with their prize. The Vukovar region was the only part of the Krajina which Belgrade recolonised with Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, and while Mr Milosevic has committed Serbs to accepting the 49 per cent of Bosnia offered in the latest peace plan, he has made no hint of letting go of Vukovar. Instead, when the Croats attacked the Krajina on 4 August, the Yugoslav army rushed reinforcements to the border.

Whether it is the oil fields north of Vukovar that he cherishes, or merely a belt of territory insulating rump Yugoslavia from Bosnia and Croatia, it seems clear Vukovar will remain a thorn in the side of the peacemakers for some time to come.