Croat Army Pulling Back From U.N. Buffer Zone, But Serbs Moving In
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ The Croatian army began pulling back Saturday from its standoff with rebel Serbs in a U.N. buffer zone in southern Croatia, but tensions remained high because Serbs crept in after them.
While the United Nations sought to keep the front lines in Croatia calm, the foes went at each other with new fury across the border in neighboring Bosnia.
Serbs and Croats lobbed 2,500 heavy shells at each other Saturday around a crucial Serb corridor and an adjacent Croat-held pocket of land.
The Serbs said they were forced for the second time in four days to close the highway through the corridor that links Serb-held lands to the west in Croatia and Bosnia with Serb-led Yugoslavia.
Croats said Serbs had wounded several civilians in heavy shelling aimed at wiping out the Croat-held Orasje pocket, which directly borders and threatens the Serb corridor.
Many analysts consider the corridor through the Serb-held Bosnian town of Brcko, 70 miles north of Sarajevo, to be the key to the conflict.
Croats control territory to the north of it, while Bosnian government forces are to the south. If cut, much Serb-controlled territory would be isolated.
U.N. officials said the Croatian army was making good on promises to withdraw from a southern buffer zone created as part of a cease-fire ending the war that began after Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia.
The 1991 war left at least 10,000 people dead and one-third of newly independent Croatia in Serb hands.
Serb and Croat soldiers moved into buffer zones bordering other Serb-held parts of Croatia earlier this month after the Croatian army attacked and recaptured land held by Serbs since 1991. The offensive raised tensions and threatened all-out war.
Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic said Friday his country would pull its soldiers out of the buffer zone in southern Croatia by Sunday, and that they would leave other areas in an unspecified ``reasonable time.″
U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness said the Croats had pulled back from four posts manned by Czech peacekeepers, but that 10 other posts still were behind Croatian lines.
As the Croats withdrew, Gunness said, Serb forces moved into the area of at least two of the Czech outposts.
A U.N. commander, Maj. Gen. Rostislav Kotil, said the situation was ``explosive.″
The senior U.N. spokesman in Zagreb, Fred Eckhard, said the Serbs may just be checking to make sure the Croats had withdrawn. ``We will make every effort that if they do enter, they do not stay,″ he said.
In an attack that appeared to be Serb revenge for Croatia’s recapture of territory, a Roman Catholic priest and a nun died in an explosion and fire that swept through a church early Friday near Banja Luka, a Bosnian Serb stronghold about 70 miles west of Brcko, church officials said.
The Presenaca church was the fourth destroyed in the Banja Luka area in two weeks. Croats are predominantly Roman Catholics, while Serbs are Eastern Orthodox.
Fighting also was reported in Bihac, a pocket of Bosnian government-held land in northwest Bosnia. U.N. officials said a government offensive may have pushed the Serbs back.
In Sarajevo, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic cried at a funeral for the 11th victim of a Serb mortar attack May 7 on a Sarajevo suburb.
U.N. officials charged the Serbs had cut the flow of natural gas to Sarajevo, breaking an agreement that had allowed unimpeded gas supplies to residents in both Serb- and government-controlled sections of the city. A senior Bosnian Serb official, Nikola Koljevic, denied that.