In the biggest land offensive Europe has seen since World War II, the Croatian army Friday swept past U.N. peacekeepers and attacked Serb strongholds throughout the mountainous crescent of territory known as the Krajina.
Knin, capital of the self-styled Krajina Serb Republic, was under attack from three directions as Croatian gunners poured more than 1,500 rounds of artillery fire into the medieval fortress town.
Croat forces shelled U.N. peacekeeping troops in their way, trapping allied soldiers in the crossfire with entrenched rebel Serbs. In Brussels, NATO warned that attacks on U.N. peacekeepers would be met with airstrikes. But there was no immediate NATO response after one Danish peacekeeper was killed and two Polish soldiers were wounded.
The Croatian government claimed that several important towns, including Petrinja and Drnis, had been retaken, but by Friday evening U.N. officials were reporting that the main Croatian thrust toward Knin had stalled in the face of stiff Serb resistance.
The Serbs, who have 50,000 troops pitted against Croatia’s 100,000-man army, also appeared to be holding their own in Glina, another town that the Croats had hoped to capture by nightfall.
Air raid sirens sounded throughout the evening in Zagreb as residents braced for a repeat of last May’s rocket attacks on the Croatian capital. The Defense Ministry said that one Frog-7 missile had hit the southern outskirts of the city but reported no casualties.
There also were unconfirmed reports of Serb shelling on Karlovac, Otocac and other Croatian towns near the confrontation line.
Croatian leaders have promised a quick victory and said their attack was moving ahead of schedule, but U.N. spokesman Philip Arnold characterized the ground advance as “very cautious.”
Some 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers, who have maintained a tense “zone of separation” between Croat and Croatian Serb forces since a 1992 cease-fire agreement, found themselves caught in the crossfire and helpless to do much more than watch as Croat tanks and troops breached their lines at more than 30 places.
The Danish peacekeeper was killed when his observation post came under Croat fire. The two Polish peacekeepers were injured, one critically, in a similar attack.
NATO warplanes fired two missiles at a Serb radar site after the planes were threatened by surface-to-air missiles in the Knin area, said Capt. Jim Mitchell, an alliance spokesman. There was no damage estimate from the NATO attack, and the planes never came under attack.
At least 16 U.N. observation posts have been abandoned or captured. Dozens have been surrounded or mined by Croatian troops.
“We quite frankly do not know where all our soldiers are. I believe the Croats are trying to intimidate us into abandoning our posts,” said Col. Andrew Leslie, the U.N. military spokesman in Knin.
There were no reliable estimates of civilian casualties, but the toll is likely to be high. Leslie painted a grim picture of Knin as Croat gunners aimed artillery fire into population centers: “Shells landing all over the place, in residential areas, everywhere,” he said.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has vowed to recover all of the land that Serb rebels took when Croatia broke away from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in 1991. After a six-month war that claimed 10,000 lives, the Serbs controlled nearly onethird of Croatia’s territory.
In May, Croatia launched a light ning offensive that recovered a large swath of Serb-held territory in western Slavonia.
Flush with that success, the Croatian government grew increasingly impatient with the slow pace of negotiations, and Tudjman began issuing ultimatums.
When Serb armies from the Krajina and Bosnia menaced the U.N.-declared “safe area” at Bihac in northwest Bosnia late last month, Croatia had all the excuse it needed to begin massing troops along the confrontation line.
As the two sides edged closer to war, U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith managed to extract a series of last-minute capitulations from the Knin leadership.
But it was too late. Confident of victory and secure that the international community would shed few tears for the Serbs, Croatia already had decided to go to war.
At 11 p.m. Thursday, Galbraith and his German counterpart, representing Croatia’s two major patrons, were summoned to the presidential palace and presented with letters from Tudjman to President Clinton and Chancellor Helmut Kohl explaining Croatia’s decision. At 5 a.m. Friday, the tanks rolled.
“We regret very much the resort to force,” Galbraith said. “I believe that the Krajina Serbs had substantially met Croatia’s conditions, and Croatia could have obtained what it sought without a war.”
But Croatia could not pass up what it sees as a golden opportunity to crush its enemy and tip the ethnic balance of the Krajina in ways that would be impossible at the bargaining table.
Throughout the day, Croatian radio broadcast statements promising Serb civilians they would not be harmed, but few Serbs believe it. The shelling of Knin and other population centers has done little to convince them otherwise.
If the battle goes according to plan, the U.N. and other relief agencies expect that upward of 100,000 Serb refugees will flee, most likely across the border to Bosnia.
This effectively would depopulate the Krajina in another permutation of the “ethnic cleansing” that has become the signature of the bloody Balkans conflict.
The beleaguered Knin leadership has been appealing for help to Yugoslavia, its main patron and the military powerhouse of the Balkans, but Yugoslavia’s response thus far has been “strikingly low-key,” according to one Western diplomat.
International criticism of the Croa tian offensive has been muted. The strongest condemnation came from Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister who is now the European Community’s top peace negotiator in the former Yugoslavia.
“Especially appalling is the shelling of civilian population now being reported,”said Bildt.
“It should be remembered that Krajina Serb President (Milan) Martic was indicted for war crimes following the Serb rocket attack on Zagreb in May. It is difficult to see any difference between these actions and the shelling of Knin for which President Tudjman must now be held responsible,” Bildt said.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SERBIA REACTS Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, the champion of Serb nationalism, condemned Croatian President Franjo Tudjman’s decision to launch the attack Friday, but declared that peace in the area “can be reached only by political means, through negotiations,” in what diplomats interpreted as a sign he does not intend to intervene in the new battle for the time being.
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