Tudjman under heavy pressure to let UN stay

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The Independent Online

in Zagreb

Intense diplomatic pressure from Washington, which fears a conflagration in Croatia could infect the whole region, may persuade President Franjo Tudjman to reverse his decision to expel 14,000 UN peace-keepers at the end of the month.

Richard Holbrooke, a US assistant secretary of state, is to visit Zagreb this weekend - his second trip in a week - in search of a formula to save Mr Tudjman's face and retain an international buffer force between the Croatian army and the rebel Krajina Serbs. Senior UN officials, none the less, are proceeding with plans for a withdrawal in three weeks.

Mr Tudjman, whose ambition is a place in the history books as the man who reunited Croatia, ordered the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) to leave on the ground that its main function had been to bolster Serb control over a third of the country. The rest of the world reacted with horror, fearing that a pull-out would spark a new war with Serbia proper.

Mr Holbrooke, who is prosecuting "a very delicate and critical discussion" with Croatia, is thought to have proposed a watered-down UN mission to Mr Tudjman. A new force, of about 5,000 troops, would police the zone between the opposing armies and perhaps monitor Croatia's international borders.

The Krajina Serbs' attitude to a new mandate is "not unpositive", a Western diplomat said, because the Serbs want to retain an international presence in the country. "The signs are beginning to look slightly encouraging, but it's a long way off," the diplomat said.

"The problem is giving [Zagreb] enough to allow us to stay here, but not accepting so much that we can't implement it," one UN official said. Croatia's shopping list includes international control of its frontiers, to prevent Serbia or the Bosnian Serbs from aiding their allies in Croatia, an idea dismissed by the diplomat as "a non-starter".

If Mr Tudjman wins a promise of border-monitoring, and a new name for the UN mission, he can probably sell it as a victory, albeit one that looks rather hollow.

However, "withdrawal planning is still very much going on", according to a senior UN officer, starting on 1 April. He said that in "a very benign environment" - the unlikely scenario in which the Krajina Serbs let UN troops and all their equipment leave without opposition - a full withdrawal would take 160 days. But if order breaks down, a small mobile Nato force might be needed to rescue UN soldiers. The nightmare is of a second Croatian war that spreads to Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia - hence the frantic efforts to woo Mr Tudjman.

Many analysts believe the Holbrooke solution would only postpone the crisis, perhaps until the tourist season ends. If there has been no progress by then towards the peaceful reintegration of Croatia, Mr Tudjman will be able to tell the world he has tried everything but war.