UN deal averts threat of Croatian war


in Zagreb

Croatia yesterday agreed to allow a smaller United Nations peace-keeping force (Unprofor) to remain in the country, prompting sighs of relief from diplomats and UN officials who hope to avert a new Balkan war, at least this spring.

Under the agreement, Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, who had ordered the 14,000 peace-keepers to leave Croatia when the UN mandate expires in three weeks' time, will allow 5,000 to stay. The deal struck with the US Vice-President, Al Gore, may only postpone an inevitable battle with the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs.

Meanwhile, at Sarajevo airport, a bullet fired into a jet carrying the UN envoy to the former Yugoslavia,Yasushi Akashi, narrowly missed one of his bodyguards. By that time, five people had been killed in the city in the previous 24 hours.

According to a statement issued by President Tudjman, the new mission would have three tasks; to control Croatia's borders with Bosnia and the rump Yugoslavia; to control the passage of aid to Bosnia through Serb- held territories in Croatia; to facilitate implementation of agreements with the rebel Serbs, notably a ceasefire and economic accord, and to encourage the reintegration of Croatia.

"This is very good news," Mr Gore said. "I consider this a major step away from war and towards peace." Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said: "This paves the way for an effective UN force to continue keeping the peace in Croatia. Such a force is vital to the stability of Croatia and the region."

The US-Croat deal must still be approved by the Security Council and accepted by the Krajina Serb leaders in their Knin headquarters. The Serbs have rejected the idea of a smaller UN force and are unlikely to welcome monitors on the frontier with their ethnic kin in Bosnia and Yugoslavia. But they want an international presence and may have to accept border monitors as the price.

President Tudjman may also find it difficult to sell the deal - a face- saving formula and a retreat from his demand that the UN should leave - to a domestic audience stirred to contempt for the UN by Croatia's media.

UN officials fear they will be saddled with a mandate they cannot implement. Mr Tudjman's reason for expelling Unprofor was its inability to reintegrate Serb-held areas of Croatia, despite numerous Security Council resolutions .

"The worries are twofold. First, that the UN is going to have its size cut and be given more jobs to do," one official said. "Second, this mandate will last for six months. What if by September there's not much to show for it? What if the political talks with the Krajina Serbs have not got anywhere?"

Many fear this could mean an autumn offensive. President Tudjman blames the UN for his government's failure to entice the Krajina Serbs back into the Croatian fold. If the force goes, he will have no scapegoat.

"If you think through the implications of a new mandate, and the fact that Tudjman's options could narrow quite considerably [after September], it's not necessarily grounds for optimism," said another UN official. As for Bosnia, "My mood is rather one of tenacity than optimism", said Mr Akashi, who is in Bosnia hoping to extend the faltering truce. There has been a big increase in sniping in the city, and the Bosnian Serbs are again harassing the UN, blocking convoys, stealing supplies and arresting local UN staff.

On Saturday they announced the closure of the only road into the capital after two girls were shot dead in a Serb-held suburb of the city. Shortly after, Serbian snipers killed a 49-year-old woman, and two other Bosnians died in mortar attacks on the city. The welcome that Mr Akashi's plane received at Sarajevo airport, probably from the Bosnian Serbs, does not bode well for his peace mission.