An order for 15,000 U.N. troops to leave at the end of winter appears t
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ An order for 15,000 U.N. troops to leave at the end of winter appears to be a bid by Croatia to spur a political deal with its rebel Serbs and arch-rival Serbia.
But President Franjo Tudjman’s move carries a serious risk of miscalculation and renewed heavy fighting in Croatia, and possibly reigniting neighboring Bosnia as well.
The presence of peacekeepers has largely halted a war that began in 1991 and that left a third of Croatia in Serb hands. But it also froze front lines, and Croatia has grown impatient with the United Nations’ inability to ensure the terms of the peace deal, which include reintegration of Serb-held territory and return of refugees to their homes.
Top U.N. officials, including Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, say they are worried that withdrawal of the peacekeepers would lead to a renewal of the fighting that took at least 10,000 lives.
Croatian officials sought to assure the international community that the move was not intended as a prelude to an assault on the Serb-held territory, known as the Krajina.
Tudjman said in a nationwide speech that ``we are not backing off of our firm desire to return occupied territories peacefully into the overall economic, state, and legal order of Croatia.″
``Because of that, we shall continue with efforts, in direct consultations, to normalize Croat-Serb relations,″ he said.
Tudjman is under growing pressure from parliament, from hardliners in his Croatian Democratic Union and from about 200,000 refugees to make progress on the issue.
By refusing to renew the U.N. mandate that expires at the end of March, Western diplomatic sources said, Tudjman may be pressuring the Security Council to change the mandate and make it easier to reintegrate the land.
Tudjman’s spokesman Jozo Curic said recently that U.N. troops could stay after March 31 if the mandate were changed, but no one has specified exactly how it should change.
Threat of ending the U.N. mandate also is aimed at putting pressure on talks on economic reintegration of the Serb-held territories.
The talks have led to partial reopening of the highway between the Croatian capital Zagreb and Serbian capital Belgrade, and wary moves by the two sides to patch up oil pipelines, electrical grids and water supplies.
But Croatia has complained the talks are going too slowly.
Some observers suggest that agreement between Tudjman and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic stands behind the move.
Milosevic, whose nationalist rhetoric provided a major spark for the 1991 war, now is pressing the Croatian Serbs to settle. The Croatian Serbs’ only contact to the outside world is through Milosevic’s Serbia.
``The purpose of Tudjman’s request is to speed up the process of rapprochement between Croatia and Serbia,″ said Milorad Pupovac, a Croatian Serb politician thought to have good ties to Belgrade.
Tudjman will not improve relations with Serb-led Yugoslavia unless the issue of the Croatian Serbs is settled, and Yugoslavia recognizes Croatia.
The international community has set recognition of Croatia as a key hurdle for Milosevic to gain any further lifting of economic sanctions.
Pupovac suggested Milosevic’s price for recognition of Croatia could be an end to Croatia’s alliance with the Bosnian government.
``If the Bosnian problem would be forsaken by Croatia, then it would be much easier,″ Pupovac said.
``It is in the overall Serb interest to maximally normalize Serb-Croat relations,″ he said. ``Therefore, it also in the Krajina Serb interest.″
But many Croatian Serbs don’t believe that.
Croatian Serbs vow never to be brought under rule from Zagreb, and are unlikely to accept voluntarily any accomodation with Tudjman.
Without U.N. troops between them, the occasional clashes between the two sides could easily erupt into broader warfare. The Serbs could be hard-pressed to defend themselves against a better-trained and better-equipped Croatia army.
If they cannot, it could be difficult for Milosevic to stay out of the fray. Serb nationalists, including some in the Yugoslav army, would try to protect their ethnic brothers.
Any deal with Milosevic likely would end a Croat-Muslim federation in Bosnia and perhaps lead to a renewal of the fighting between them.
It also would likely push Croatian Serbs closer to Bosnian Serbs. They already have responded to pressure from Milosevic by increasing cooperation. Croatian Serbs have joined an attack on the government-held Bihac pocket in northwest Bosnia.
EDITOR’S NOTE _ Jasmina Kuzmanovic has covered Croatia and the war in former Yugoslavia for The Associated Press since 1993.