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Croatian Forces Losing to Better-Led Serbian Rebels

August 16, 1991

OSIJEK, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Sgt. Martin Kis scanned the mile-wide belt of no-man’s-land separating his Croatian squad from the first Serbian outposts, invisible in a sudden downpour.

″If they dare come across that, we’ll show them our boys can fight well,″ said the burly, 38-year-old commander of a 12-man squad in the eastern Croatia village of Tenja.

His unit has been on the losing side of the undeclared war between Croatian security forces and armed Serbian militants.

After 40 days of fighting following the Croatian republic’s secession from Yugoslavia on June 25, a week-old cease-fire has left ethnic Serbian insurgents in control of almost a fifth of Croatia. At least 200 people have died.

Although outnumbered 4 to 1 and outgunned by Croatia’s 75,000-strong security force, the Serbs have used guerrilla tactics to gain the upper hand.

Serbs, who represent 12 percent of Croatia’s 4.75 million people, want their enclaves to remain part of Yugoslavia. Serbia is the largest and the dominant republic in the Yugoslav federation.

Croatia has complained that the federal army, whose officer corps is 70 percent Serbian, backs the insurgents. Independent observers say the army’s role depends on the local commander.

Yugoslavia’s 180,000-member federal armed forces are armed with late-model tanks and modern jet fighters. About one-quarter to one-third of the federal forces are deployed to keep the Serbians and Croatians apart.

Croatian authorities claim the Serbian rebels are a proxy force for Serbia’s Socialist president, Slobodan Milosevic. They say he wants Serbia to annex a third of Croatia as part of a move to expand Serbian rule.

″Serbia has wanted to dominate these areas throughout history,″ said Zarko Plevnik, a member of Croatia’s command based in Osijek, a city 155 miles west of Zagreb, the Croatian capital. Osijek is part of the Slavonia region, an area of Croatia bordering Serbia.

Foreign military attaches in Belgrade attribute the reversals suffered by the Croatian police and paramilitary Peoples’ Guard to various factors: lack of a united command, poor tactics and lack of discipline.

Some Croats have sold their AK-47 assault rifles for $400 apiece to Serbs, according to accounts circulating on both sides of the conlict. Other Croatian forces have abandoned positions after repeated shelling.

Antun Abramovic, a Croatian defense ministry official, attributed the Serbian gains to ″a classic four-phase plan of guerrilla operations.″

The Serbs first created a political wing, the Serb Democratic Party, to prepare an armed campaign, Abramovic said. Militants then infiltrated villages populated mainly by ethnic Serbs and started a campaign of terror to drive out local Croats, blowing up shops and harassing them.

Next, armed Serbs struck at vital targets. Then these guerrillas gradually evolved into mobile units to occupy and hold territory, he said.

Serbs have taken control of three enclaves, covering 4,054 square miles, or 18.5 percent of Croatia’s territory.

They started the campaign in the Krajina region of western Croatia in August 1990, and have used that base to cut central Croatia off from the Adriatic coast.

Their strategy in the recent fighting has been to combine Krajina with the neighboring Banija enclave south of Zagreb, Abramovic said.

The third Serbian thrust came in Slavonia, which has seen the heaviest fighting as armed rebels poured across the border from neighboring Serbia.

Abramovic said Croatian defenders are armed mostly with light infantry weapons, including automatic rifles, submachine guns, and 82mm and 120mm mortars.

The Serbian insurgents generally have lighter arms, including shoulder- carried mortars, automatic rifles and World War II-era Thompson submachine guns.

Good intelligence apparently enabled Serb insurgents to trap Croat forces in local police stations in such towns as Glina and Dalj, or lure them into ethnic Serb strongholds. Dozens of Croats died in such attacks.

Another Serbian tactic has been to maneuver around federal army units meant to keep the two sides apart and shell Croatian positions. This draws Croatian fire, which often hits the well-armed federal troops, triggering a fierce response.

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