Tudjman's gamble pays off - for now

Croat victory/ Belgrade the key

FOR REPORTERS it was a replay of 1991 - driving at breakneck speed down winding rural roads in eastern Croatia to the tune of gunfire - with one enormous difference: the Croatian army has become a disciplined, effective and well-armed fighting force. For Croats it was a new and glorious chapter; for Bosnians an encouraging sign; for Serbs a disastrous and shocking loss, not just of land but of belief in Serb brotherhood.

"This is the first significant loss of land for the Serbs since the war began," said a Western diplomat, "and I think it comes in the context of a reversal of fortunes." The Croatian blitzkrieg on western Slavonia has an importance far beyond the recapture of a small, thinly populated area of farms and orchards.

The question is whether it will lead to the defeat of secessionist Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, in battle or diplomacy, or whether it will force Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic to embrace his former clients in the Serb statelets and opt for all-out war in the Balkans. It has certainly sharpened the dilemma facing contributors to the UN peace-keeping effort.

Croatian forces are now mopping up die-hards who have taken to the hills, and processing 1,200 Serb men taken prisoner in Pakrac (in violation of a UN-brokered ceasefire).

In Okucani and Pakrac, Croatian soldiers sat around outside Serb homes brewing coffee, their orderly behaviour at variance with the usual victorious brutality of organised looting and violent reprisals.

Croatia, long overshadowed by its Serbian neighbour, seems to have gained a bit of confidence. President Franjo Tudjman protests that Croatia seeks the peaceful re-integration of its territories; the truth is it seeks the re-integration by any means necessary. The difference now is that the military option has suddenly become far more plausible.

The ruling HDZ faces parliamentary elections next year, and, before the offensive, was thought likely to lose its majority. Now voters are returning in droves to the nationalists, angered in particular by two Serb rocket attacks on Zagreb that killed six and wounded 180. "We have to push them all out of Croatia," said Marija Baric firmly, shortly after she was caught on the street when a rocket loaded with cluster bombs crashed into the park opposite. "We don't want revenge, we just want to be left in peace."

It is a reflection of official attitudes: Croatian television on Friday showed pictures of the Serb prisoners from Pakrac interwoven with four- year-old footage of the Serb destruction of Vukovar.

Serb television, for its part, showed its tribute to VE Day: Second World War-era pictures of Croatian Fascists and Serb victims of the concentration camp in Jasenovac were juxtaposed with pictures of Mr Tudjman and then Hitler. Jasenovac was the first town taken by the Croats in western Slavonia.

Serb television also broadcast threats of total war issued by Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and his Croatian Serb counterpart, Milan Martic, and their view that the UN, having failed to defend western Slavonia, no longer exists. Such words must strike fear into the hearts of politicians in Paris, London and Moscow who have soldiers in Bosnia.

The armies of Zagreb and Sarajevo are beginning to co-operate ever more closely; the Serb forces of Knin and Pale would like to, but are short of fuel and manpower. The response of Belgrade so far has been discouraging for them: Mr Milosevic condemned the shelling of Zagreb and has made no move to help his former clients. Some suspect the loss of western Slavonia received a nod from Belgrade, which is eager to see peace deals in Croatia and Bosnia so that it can escape the economic embargo.

That is the optimistic view: that four years have brought a sea change in the Serbian leadership that prosecuted the first Croatian war. The pessimists fear that either Knin or Zagreb will up the ante so far that Belgrade feels compelled to turn out for another round of the 1991 war.

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