In an accelerating offensive, tank-led Croatian forces hammered through flagging Serb defenders in the Krajina region Saturday, capturing the rebel capital and driving tens of thousands of new refugees into panicked flight.
Two more international peacekeepers died from Croatian fire, about 200 were detained by Croatian troops and artillery rained on civilian centers, the United Nations said.
The government of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman angrily rejected accusations of human rights abuses and promised that it would allow U.N. personnel into captured areas to safeguard rights and offer humanitarian assistance.
By midday Saturday on the second day of war, Croatian tanks and infantry smashed into the devastated rebel capital of Knin, its streets littered with bodies.
The capture of Knin in 36 hours of fighting marked a stunning defeat for the Serbs at the outset of a new Balkans war that quickly merged with the ongoing one in BosniaHerzegovina next door.
Bosnian government troops entered Croatia for the first time Saturday to support advances by Croat allies who recently short-circuited a Serb assault on the enclave of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia. A reported Bosnian linkup with Croatian troops Saturday could open a corridor for aid to a region isolated by Serb siege and short of food.
In Knin on Saturday, jubilant invaders hoisted a huge red and white checkerboard Croatian flag atop the medieval citadel that is a symbol of the valley town flanked by mountains, a building that was headquarters of the 4-year-old revolt by secessionist Serbs against the rule of Catholic Croatia.
U.N. officers described scenes of devastation in the town of about 30,000 that the rebels had proclaimed their capital and Croatia had pounded with about 2,000 artillery shells in a day and a half.
“Chaos,” said one officer. Bodies of civilians and soldiers lay in city streets. Fires burned, gutting old stone houses with orange tile roofs. Doctors worked in the basement of a hospital hit twice by shellfire.
Saturday morning, one shell hit near a U.N. sector headquarters north of town where more than 300 townspeople had taken shelter. Seven civilians died and a dozen were wounded, U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness said.
Serb forces apparently abandoned their capital overnight Friday, and it appeared that the rebel government had decamped by the time shelling resumed around 9:15 Saturday morning. By noon, Croatian infantry, tanks and armored personnel carriers entered the city without opposition, said Gunness.
U.N. officers in Knin told Gunness that there was some minor looting, but that the Croatian troops were behaving professionally in a virtually deserted city.
“Almost the only people remaining were the dead and the dying,” said Maj. Alan Balfour from Knin, a key rail and road junction 120 miles south of Zagreb.
As night fell, there were more than 600 people sheltering inside the U.N. compound. “I don’t know if this is ethnic cleansing, but clearly the vast majority intend to leave Croatia,” said U.N. spokesman Alun Roberts said. Before they left, Knin officials appealed to the United Nations to evacuate 32,000 civilians trapped by the fighting.
“We don’t know where the 32,000 are, but we recognize that we will have to deal with even more than that,” Gunness said.
U.N. spokesman Philip Arnold said Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi expected quick implementation of an agreement that would allow the United Nations to safeguard Serb civilians.
On Friday, European Union mediator Carl Bildt, angrily accusing Zagreb of wrecking peace talks, warned Tudjman that he could be held responsible for war crimes over the shelling of Serb civilians.
“These are historic days for Croatia, Europe and the world. Bihac is safe. Croatia has done what we believe the world wanted us to do,” said Maj. Gen. Ivan Tolj, a spokesman for the Croatian Defense Ministry.
With the aid of the Yugoslav army, ethnic Serbs who have lived for centuries as a minority in Croatia rebelled as federal Yugoslavia was disintegrating in 1991. In a 6-month war, they captured about a third of Croatian national territory and dreamed of joining Serb lands in Bosnia and Serbia itself to form a “Greater Serbia.”
A tenuous cease-fire halted the bloodshed in January 1992, but international peace seekers had failed to bridge the gap between the Serbs and their Croat neighbors.