Serb Stronghold Falls to Fierce Croat Assault
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ Backed by a dawn artillery barrage, Croatian army troops marched into the rebel stronghold of Knin today, seizing what had been the heart of the 4-year-old Serb rebellion.
Civilians and soldiers had fled overnight and in the early morning, leaving Knin virtually deserted by the time Croatian troops entered around midday.
``Almost the only people remaining were the dead and the dying,″ Maj. Alan Balfour, a U.N. spokesman, said by telephone from Knin, about 120 miles south of Zagreb.
Two U.N. peacekeepers, both Czechs, died Saturday following an attack by Croats on their observation post near Gospic, northwest of Knin, said Alun Roberts, another U.N. spokesman in Knin. NATO had threatened Friday to respond to attacks on peacekeepers with airstrikes, but there was no immediate report of allied action.
One peacekeeper was killed Friday. Croatian officials said then that they regretted any U.N. casualties, but maintained they had warned the U.N. troops to get out of the way.
Balfour said Croatian troops pledged not to enter the U.N. compound in Knin, where close to 400 elderly men, women and very young children _ including about 70 wounded evacuated from the hospital _ have sought refuge.
Balfour said that sporadic firing continued in the streets of Knin, but Croatian troops appeared to be consolidating their hold of the city.
Croatian officials said Croatia’s distinctive checkerboard flag _ for Serbs a hated emblem of Croatian rule _ was now flying above the citadel that dominates Knin’s landscape and was the coronation site for medieval Croatian kings.
The whereabouts of the rebel Serb leaders, who had headquarters in Knin, was unknown, Balfour said.
Rebel Serbs continued retaliating today for the attacks by shelling cities in eastern Croatia, forcing the United Nations to evacuate several observation posts, said Kirsten Haupt, a U.N. spokeswoman in eastern Croatia.
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 that landed 100 yards from the U.N. headquarters killed seven civilians and wounded 11 others.
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 in the streets while he helped transport wounded to the hospital.
He said he had lost communications with almost all U.N. observation posts in the area.
Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic appealed to the United Nations on Friday for protection from the advancing Croat forces.
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.
From Knin, the Croats advanced Saturday on other Serb-held towns.
Balfour confirmed that Gracac, about 25 miles northwest of Knin, also had fallen to the Croats. There were virtually no Serb defenses between the two towns, meaning the Croats had control of a broad swath of land north of Knin.
He also claimed Croatian army forces were nearing a rebel Serb airfield at Udbina, which had been used for air attacks on Bihac in northwestern Bosnia.
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.
The rebel Serb leader in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic, pledged again that his troops would help the Croatian Serbs.