Croats Pulling Back, But Serbs Creeping Ahead in Buffer Zones
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ The Croatian army began pulling back Saturday from its standoff with rebel Serbs in a U.N. buffer zone in southern Croatia, but tensions remained high because Serbs crept in after them.
While the United Nations sought to keep the front lines in Croatia calm, the foes went at each other with new fury across the border in northern Bosnia.
Peacekeepers said Serbs and Croats lobbed 1,000 heavy shells at each other Saturday morning in a battle over a crucial corridor of land linking Serb-held lands in Croatia, Bosnia and Serb-led Yugoslavia.
The Serbs said they were forced for the second time in four days to close the route.
U.N. officials said the Croatian army was making good on promises to withdraw from the buffer zone, where they had surrounded U.N. observation posts.
The buffer zones were created as part of a cease-fire ending the war that began after Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia. The 1991 war left at least 10,000 people dead and one-third of newly independent Croatia in Serb hands.
In early May, Croatia seized a slice of Serb-held territory back, raising fears that full-scale war would explode again. Both sides sent soldiers into the buffer zones.
Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic said Friday his country would pull its soldiers out of the buffer zone in southern Croatia by Sunday, and that they would leave other areas in an unspecified ``reasonable time.″
U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness said the Croats had pulled back from four posts manned by Czech peacekeepers, but that 10 other posts still were behind Croatian lines.
As the Croats withdrew, Gunness said, Serb forces moved into the area of at least two of the Czech outposts.
A U.N. commander, Maj. Gen. Rostislav Kotil, said the situation was ``explosive.″
The senior U.N. spokesman in Zagreb, Fred Eckhard, said the Serbs may just be checking to make sure the Croats had withdrawn. ``We will make every effort that if they do enter, they do not stay,″ he said.
Granic said Croatian soldiers had moved into the buffer zones to deter Serb shelling of the republic’s major cities. The capital Zagreb was hit on two successive days last week in retaliation for the Croatian offensive.
In neighboring Bosnia, one of the main Serb-Croat battle fronts is near the Serb-held town of Brcko, about 90 miles east of last week’s fighting in Croatia.
Many analysts consider the corridor that runs through Brcko to be the key to the conflict. Croats control territory to the north of the corridor, while Bosnian government forces are to the south. If cut, much Serb-controlled territory would be surrounded.
The corridor was closed by Serb officials on Wednesday due to heavy shelling. On Saturday, Serb news reports said it had been closed again. U.N. monitors reported 1,000 heavy shells exploding in the area Saturday morning, but could provide few details of the fighting.
Fighting also was reported in northwest Bosnia, where the United Nations reported that a government offensive may have pushed the Serbs back.
The fighting first broke out in Bosnia in 1992, months after a cease-fire went into effect in Croatia.
In Sarajevo, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic attended a funeral for the 11th victim of a Serb mortar attack May 7 on a Sarajevo suburb.
U.N. officials charged the Serbs had cut the flow of natural gas to Sarajevo, breaking an agreement that had allowed unimpeded gas supplies to residents in both Serb- and government-controlled sections of the city. A senior Bosnian Serb official, Nikola Koljevic, denied that.