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Serb Soldiers Ready To Defend Land, But Lack Motivation

September 26, 1995

MRKONJIC GRAD, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ The Serb soldiers in this town are confident they can defend it. But as diplomats mull the partition of Bosnia at the negotiating table today, many here are asking themselves what they’re fighting for.

About 10 days ago, soldiers with the Mrkonjic Grad brigade fled as Croat forces sweeping through western Bosnia advanced on the town.

But when the Serb fighters saw the Croats hesitate, they returned to defend their hometown.

``Almost all our soldiers came back and we prevented Croats from entering the town,″ said Maj. Radovan Ilic, the Mrkonjic Grad brigade commander.

``We are still within the range of their (Croat) 120-mm mortars and until we push them further, the town is not safe for civilians,″ Ilic said.

Bosnian Croat forces, backed by the Croatian army and working in conjunction with the Muslim-led Bosnian government army, have swept rebel Serbs from large swathes of western and central Bosnia in recent weeks.

Their swift advances sparked speculation that the Serbs may have staged strategic withdrawals, preferring to lose on the battlefield what they probably would have to give up under a U.S.-sponsored peace plan currently under consideration by the warring sides.

Soldiers in Mrkonjic Grad were willing to defend their hometown, but were asking themselves why. They did not hide their disappointment at watching the Serb dream of a ``Greater Serbia″ fade.

Both sides agreed at talks in Geneva on Sept. 8 to an ethnic division that would give the Muslim-Croat alliance 51 percent and the Serbs 49 percent. At the time, Serb acceptance of that percentage was considered key as the Serbs had captured nearly 70 percent of Bosnia since April 1992.

However, the Serbs have suffered stunning battlefield losses since NATO warplanes bombed their positions as punishment for attacks on the Sarajevo safe area. U.N. officials have said the Serbs have made ``tactical withdrawals″ in other areas they were likely to lose in a peace deal.

Col. Ferid Buljubasic, a spokesman for the Bosnian army in Sarajevo, said gains in northwestern and northern Bosnia had left the Muslim-Croat federation with more than 51 percent of the territory.

The turn of fortunes for the Serbs _ who until this summer were confident of conquering and holding the territory they claimed and wanted to join with Serbia proper _ smelled of an unwelcome compromise.

``Everybody’s talking about some American maps, a division that will leave these lands to the Muslims and Croats. If so, what are we still doing here, what are we fighting for?″ fumed a soldier, who refused to give his name.

Prior to the recent Serb losses in Bosnia, rebel Serbs in the Krajina region of neighboring Croatia were routed by a Croatian army offensive in early August.

``What happened in Serb Krajina?″ the soldier asked. ``How did we lose some of our towns? ... Everything has been agreed and now must look genuine.″

Brigade commander Ilic suggested it wasn’t that simple.

``I wouldn’t go into political discussion on why we’re losing territories we might have defended,″ he said. ``But from the military point of view, I must say that we’ve been facing extremely intensive Croat attack from all sorts of weapons; NATO bombed us; rumors hit morale; and it seems to be too much for our people.″

Near Kljuc about 90 miles northwest of Sarajevo, meanwhile, Bosnian government solders on Monday unearthed bones and bits of clothing at a suspected mass grave site.

The Bosnian war has left about 200,000 people dead or missing.

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