Serb Stronghold Falls to Fierce Croat Assault
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ Backed by a dawn artillery barrage, Croatian army troops marched into the stronghold of Knin today, seizing what had been the heart of the 4-year-old Serb rebellion.
Maj. Alan Balfour, a U.N. spokesman in Knin, said Croatian soldiers ``are in front of the U.N. compound″ in the southern town.
Balfour said sporadic firing continued in the streets of Knin, but that Croat troops appeared to be consolidating their hold of the city.
Earlier, Croatian officials said the distinctive Croatian checkerboard flag _ for Serbs a hated emblem of Croatian rule _ had been hoisted above the citadel that dominates Knin’s landscape and was the coronation site for medieval Croatian kings.
Rebel Serbs continued today to retaliate for the attacks by shelling Croat cities in eastern Croatia, the United Nations said.
Croatia began the broad assault to regain rebel-held lands Friday, lobbing thousands of shells on Knin and other towns in the Krajina, as the Serbs call the one-third of Croatia they captured in a 1991 war.
Frightened civilians were fleeing toward rebel Serb-held territory in neighboring Bosnia, enmeshed in a war of its own. The road out of Knin was jammed early today with cars, tractors and trucks in a chaotic scene.
Mans Nyberg of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Knin officials had asked the United Nations to prepare for about 30,000 refugees.
After intermittent shelling overnight, the attack on Knin resumed with full fury around dawn. Shells from heavy artillery rained down on the city’s hospital and near the U.N. headquarters.
Philip Arnold, the U.N. spokesman in Zagreb, said there was ``substantial damage and fire into the town.″
Susan Angle, another U.N. official, said a shell landed just 100 yards from the U.N. headquarters in Knin this morning, killing seven civilians and wounding 11 others huddled nearby.
``The situation is very difficult and rather chaotic,″ she said.
U.N. peacekeepers brought some of the wounded from that attack to Knin’s hospital, which was shelled by Croat forces while the U.N. team was delivering the wounded, officials said.
Col. Andrew Leslie, the U.N. chief of staff in Knin, said he saw about a dozen bodies lying in the streets _ half in civilian clothes, half in military uniform _ while he helped transport wounded to the hospital.
Additionally, the officer said he had lost communications with almost all U.N. observation posts in the area. U.N. officials in Zagreb said they had no immediate information on U.N. casualties.
Nonetheless, Leslie said peacekeepers had orders to ``stay where they are, continue to observe and to fulfill our duty and help where we can.″
The leadership of the Serbs in Krajina appealed to the United Nations on Friday for protection from the advancing Croat forces.
Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic, in a letter to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, asked the Security Council to ``prevent genocide over the Serb people in Krajina and enable the successful conclusion of the peace process,″ according to a faxed copy of the letter.
The Security Council late Friday demanded that Croats halt their offensive, but Zagreb’s ambassador to the United Nations defended the attack as an impetus to future peace talks.
Maj. Gen. Ivan Tolj, a Croatian Defense Ministry spokesman, claimed the army had retaken 280 square miles during Friday’s offensive, launched along broad stretches of the 725-mile front line that snakes through south-central and southwestern Croatia.
He also claimed Croat army forces were nearing a rebel Serb airfield at Udbina, which had been used for air attacks on Bihac, a northwestern Bosnia region bordering Croatia.
The Serb rebellion began after Croatia seceded from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in 1991. Serb rebels captured about one-third of the country in six months of fighting, with the goal of eventually linking up with Serb-held lands in Bosnia and Serbia itself to form a ``greater Serbia.″
A truce reached in January 1992 had been broken by sporadic clashes, but mostly held while international mediators tried to bring the two sides toward a settlement.
With no movement on the political front, however, Croatia recently decided to retake the lands by force. In May, Croatian troops recaptured a weakly defended chunk of Serb-held land in central Croatia, and recently mobilized its 100,000-man army for a broader offensive. The rebel army is about half that size.
The Croatian and Bosnian governments strengthened their military alliance two weeks ago in defense of Bihac, giving the Croat army the green light to pour thousands of troops over the border into Bosnia _ within striking distance of Knin.
Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic told Hungarian officials that Serb-held lands in the east _ bordering Serbia and Hungary _ would not be attacked and that he did not expect the Serbs to fight there, either.
That fueled speculation that Croatian President Franjo Tudjman had made a secret deal with his main rival, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, allowing the Croats to attack other Serb holdings as long as they left the Serbs in eastern Croatia alone.
Milosevic, however, is bound to come under pressure from nationalists in Serbia and the Serb-led Yugoslav army to throw that powerful army into the fight on the rebels’ side.
The rebel Serb leader in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic, meanwhile, pledged again that his troops would help the Croatian Serbs. Karadzic also announced he was assuming supreme command of his own army, with military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic now acting only as his adviser.