Zagreb's No to UN heightens war fears

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The Independent Online
President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia yesterday told the UN he would not extend its peace-keeping mission in Croatia, where 15,000 troops police a ceasefire between Zagreb and rebellious Krajina Serbs who hold a third of the country. His announcemen t prompted fears of a renewed war in Croatia and a knock-on effect in Bosnia.

In a letter to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, Mr Tudjman said he would not authorise the UN to remain after 31 March, when its current mandate expires, and that the force should leave by the end of June. "Croatia finds the present situation in the occupied territories wholly unacceptable," he wrote. "Moreover, given the present inefficient Unprofor [UN Protection Force] mission, Croatia finds [its] continued presence in the occupied territories to be significantly counter-productive tothe peace process."

Mr Boutros-Ghali, who said he was "painfully aware" of the government's frustration at the UN's failure to re-integrate Serb-held lands to Croatia proper, responded with regret and anxiety. "The United Nations played a decisive role in bringing a halt tothe brutal war on Croatian soil three years ago," he said in a statement from New York. "I am gravely concerned about the risk of renewed hostilities should United Nations peace-keepers be withdrawn."

The UN envoy, Yasushi Akashi, warned that the decision could escalate fighting both in Croatia and Bosnia. "The Croatian government has a feeling that our interpositioning along the confrontation lines makes the Krajina Serb position more adamant," he t o ld reporters. "They are, in short, afraid of what they consider a Cyprus phenomenon being reproduced here in Croatia."

Diplomats said Zagreb appeared to mean what it said, despite the risks to Croatia inherent in another war with local Serbs, particularly if they were supported by Bosnian Serbs or by the Yugoslav army. But they added there was little the international

community could do to change Mr Tudjman's mind. "All we can do is simply try to get them to see the risks," said a Western diplomat. "They think the risks are worth taking."

Croatia has offered to allow the UN, which spends more than $250m a year in the country, to keep bases for the Bosnia mission in Zagreb. However, while the peace-keepers will need to maintain a presence at Split airport for the Bosnian aid operation, they are unlikely to remain in Zagreb.

The 300,000 Croats displaced by the war in 1991, and hardliners within the ruling nationalist HDZ party, are pressing for change. Under the [Cyrus] Vance plan and Security Council resolutions, the UN was to disarm the Serb rebels, monitor Croatia's bord e rs with Bosnia and Serbia, and return refugees to their homes. The lightly-armed force is, however, neither willing nor able to fulfil these tasks without Krajina Serb consent. The mission has brokered an economic agreement between the warring parties.B ut the fruits are not yet rich enough to persuade Zagreb of the UN's usefulness.

One diplomat said the Croats had told his government: "Unprofor has kept the peace, but it still has not solved Croatia's problems." Zagreb is now hoping, the diplomat said, that the prospect of a UN withdrawal will concentrate Krajina Serb minds on the need for real negotiations. But it is a dangerous policy, despite Croatia's efforts to build a modern army.

Mr Akashi said yesterday: "If Unprofor is withdrawn from Croatia I think that incidents or accidents may lead to a major escalation of fighting.". Furthermore, the recent truce in Bosnia "can be impeded and affected if anything unsettling" happens to thenorth.

Meanwhile, the UN mission in Bosnia has reported some progress in the ceasefire talks. After a 10-hour meeting in Sarajevo on Wednesay, the commanders of the warring armies in Bosnia agreed that the "blue routes" for civilian traffic into Sarajevo shouldopen by tomorrow.