LEADING ARTICLE : The war crimes of Croatia

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President Franjo Tudjman's government came to power in Croatia claiming to represent democracy, European culture and Christian values. Its conquest of the rebel Serb areas of the Krajina was accompanied by renewed bombast to that effect and drew applause from Croatia's sponsors, Germany and the United States. It is now clear that Croatian forces committed widespread murder against elderly Serb non-combatants while looting and burning Serb homes. Under any of the international legal conventions which Croatia purports to recognise, these are war crimes.

The European Union and the United Nations have both gathered compelling evidence of Croatian atrocities. The human rights group Helsinki Watch discovered that 12 Serb civilians aged between 60 and 85 were slaughtered in a village near the fallen Serb "capital" of Knin. Then their corpses were removed by helicopter to Knin for burial in secret.

The critical point about the Helsinki Watch report is the degree of official complicity in criminal acts which it reveals. It is no longer credible for Croatian ministers to explain such excesses to their European colleagues as the work of isolated elements.

A government that claims closer kinship to Vienna and Paris than to Belgrade and Sarajevo must be measured by the standards it sets itself. President Tudjman cannot act by the rationale of racial supremacy at home and pose as a sophisticated democrat to the rest of Europe. Nor can the atrocities in the Krajina be excused with the lament that Serbs and Muslims are also guilty of war crimes. The values of the rule of law and the observance of human rights are indivisible.

There has been so much hand-wringing over Europe's failure to avert tragedy in the former Yugoslavia that we may think it impossible to do much about these latest atrocities. That is not so. It is precisely because Croatia seeks to distinguish itself from the other states of former Yugoslavia that it is vulnerable to pressure. Its European aspirations furnish a lever to correct and restrain its conduct.

Croatia should be told that it can expect no political favours and extract no economic concessions from the European Union unless this behaviour ceases and the guilty are brought to justice. The same stance should be taken by all European institutions whose membership confers respectability on the government in Zagreb. If Germany wishes to speak up for Croatia, that is its privilege. Other foreign offices and ministers will no doubt protest the risk of upsetting the peace process and the undesirability of annoying Mr Tudjman. That is as much self-deception as the declaration by the US ambassador to Zagreb that the flight of at least 140,000 Serbs from the Krajina "was not ethnic cleansing". We cannot thunder moral indignation at the Serbs while granting the Croats a licence to murder. In this case Europe can make a difference - and it should.