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Yugoslav Leaders Try to Defuse Crisis; Army on Alert

May 7, 1991

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ With the army warning it will restore order if politicians cannot, the country’s leaders met in emergency session today to discuss Serb-Croat clashes that have left at least 20 people dead.

Sources close to the presidency said the eight-man body, which nominally commands the army, will also discuss an army request for a nationwide state of emergency. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity.

The army on Monday declared a combat alert and began calling up reservists after a soldier became the most recent casualty in the worst violence between the feuding nationalities since World War II.

Croatian radio and witnesses said army units with tanks were seen maneuvering today in regions of Croatia and the central republic of Bosnia, which has mixed Serb, Croat and Muslim populations.

At least 15 people, mostly Croatian police, were killed in fighting between the police and armed Serb civilians on Thursday in villages in eastern Croatia, close to the border with Serbia.

Meanwhile, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, and the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Croatia, Franjo Kuharic, met today in the Serbian town of Sremski Karlovci to discuss the conflict, the state news agency Tanjug said.

In the army’s statement, the defense minister, Gen. Veljko Kadijevic, warned that if federal and republic officials ″fail to ensure peace, (the Yugoslav armed forces) could efficiently do so themselves.″

His statement, addressed to the head of the federal presidency, Borisav Jovic of Serbia, said: ″Yugoslav society has already entered a civil war.″ It was published by Tanjug.

The warning appeared to amount to an ultimatum to leaders of Yugoslavia’s six republics to restore order or face a possible military takeover.

Mounting ethnic and political unrest has wracked this patchwork nation and threatens to break apart the fragile bonds among the country’s six republics and two autonomous regions.

The tension between the Serbs and Croats, the two largest ethnic groups in this Balkan nation of 24 million people, has escalted over disputes between leaders of Communist Serbia and reform-minded Croatia.

The military’s statement came hours after about 30,000 people rallied in the Adriatic port of Split to protest an army blockade of the nearby town of Kijevo, which is dominated by ethnic Croatians.

Those attending the rally attacked two armored personnel carriers posted outside the Yugoslav naval command, Tanjug quoted Split Mayor Onisim Cvitan as saying. Sasha Gesovski, 19, was killed by gunshots from the crowd and another soldier was wounded, news reports said.

It was the first military death in the recent clashes.

In announcing Monday that it would make its third emergency meeting in as many days, the presidency condemned Monday’s attack on the soldiers in Split and warned of unspecified dangers if the army was assaulted again, Tanjug said.

Later, Adm. Jozo Erceg said the military had not shot back when attacked, Tanjug reported. But some witnesses claimed shots were fired into the air from the military building.

Also Monday, Croatian television said armed ethnic Serbs clashed with an army convoy trying to bring drugs and food to Kijevo and forced the soldiers to retreat. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Federal army units were posted in April around Kijevo to prevent a possible assault by armed civilians from Knin, a nearby town with a predominantly ethnic Serb population.

Ethnic Serbs, who make up about 11 percent of the Croatian republic’s 5 million people, have been in virtual rebellion since last summer.

A Defense Ministry order putting troops on combat alert implied that the republic’s president, Franjo Tudjman, had helped stir Monday’s violence by reportedly encouraging demonstrations outside army installations.

Tudjman, however, chastised the army for failing to side with his government in its attempts to curb the Serbian rebellion in its midst.

Speaking before departing on a visit to Britain, Tudjman said it was ″unbearable″ for Croatia that the army puts ″on an equal footing ... the Croatian authorities and outlaws who violate the constitutional rule of law.″

His remarks were reported by Tanjug after his talks with Croatian leaders Monday.

Pro-independence Croatia has repeatedly accused the Serb-dominated military of seeking to block its moves to secede or transform Yugoslavia. But the army has been reluctant to intervene in recent ethnic violence.

Tudjman’s center-right government wants to turn the country into a loose association of states. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his Communists want to maintain a strong central government.

The most recent demand for a state of emergency was made by Serbia in March after two people died inunprecedented violence between anti-communist protesters and police in Belgrade.

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