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Croatian Victory Overshadowed By Abuses In Krajina Human Shields Released, But Refugees Number In Tens Of Thousands

Mon., Aug. 7, 1995, midnight

The Croatian army’s “Operation Storm” rammed through another rebel-held town Sunday, but its lightning victory over Serbs in the breakaway Krajina region was marred by reports of battlefield abuses and a colossal flight of civilians.

Overcoming stubborn Serbian resistance, Croatian armor and infantry captured the key town of Petrinja, 39 miles southeast of Zagreb. In central and southern parts of Krajina, mobile columns advancing along half a dozen lines encountered little opposition, U.N. analysts said.

“Krajina has ceased to exist,” Croatian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Ivan Tolj told reporters, building on an earlier affirmation that “Operation Storm is entering its end phase.”

Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic said Sunday that the fighting was nearly over. “We expect all major operations will finish tomorrow,” he told reporters after meeting international mediators in Geneva.

Across this capital, checkerboard Croatian flags flew from buildings and citizens boasted to one another about how quickly victory had come in a war Croatia had launched only at dawn Friday.

But in the countryside, fleeing Serbs had a different point of view.

“Many dozens of thousands of people from Croatia are on the move in Bosnia,” said Vladimir Tsourko, head of U.N. relief operations in the Serb-held town of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbian refugee agencies told U.N. officials that 120,000 people are on the road, but there was no independent confirmation.

Tsourko said the exodus could be the largest refugee flight in four years of war in the former Yugoslav federation.

In another disturbing development, a Croatian battalion attacking Serbs in northern Krajina used seven captured Danish peacekeepers and Serbian prisoners of war as human shields Friday and Saturday, the Danish government and the United Nations said in angry complaints Sunday. The soldiers were ultimately released unharmed.

Denying the accusation, Croatian spokesman Tolj said, “People want to diminish the brilliance of this military victory.”

In a region where 10,000 people died in brutal fighting and many thousands of Croats were driven away in the wake of the 1991 Croatian Serb rebellion, this time the Serbs left their homes behind.

At least 35,000 people lurched in convoys toward Serb-controlled areas of neighboring Bosnia on Sunday. The Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA said a column of refugees 12 miles long was streaming toward Serb-held territory from a mostly rural region in which an estimated 180,000 Serbs - a third of them soldiers - lived when the fighting began.

The United Nations said authorities in Banja Luka estimated that between 50,000-60,000 refugees would arrive in the next two days, and officials at the Serb-held Bosnian town of Prijedor said they were preparing to accommodate 15,000 in a soccer stadium. A U.N. spokesman warned of possible reprisals on minority communities of Croats and Muslims in Banja Luka.

Five fires continued to burn out of control in the heart of Knin, the Krajina capital, which was hit by 2,000 shells Friday and captured by the Croats on Saturday. The commander of the U.N. garrison in Knin reported that there had been extensive looting, Gunness said.

Croatian forces were not allowing peacekeepers to leave their base in Knin, Gunness said. One Canadian officer reported hearing sporadic shots from small arms, saying “it did not sound like combat.”

Gunness said the United Nations is “urgently demanding access to all towns, villages and rural areas affected by the fighting to address humanitarian problems and assess the human rights situation.”

Before the Serbs’ 1991 uprising against Croatia, Petrinja had a population of about 35,000, split fairly evenly between Serbs and Croats. After six months of fighting that ended with a January 1992 cease-fire, the Serbs had captured Krajina and expelled the Croats from the region. When the current fighting began, about 15,000 people lived in Petrinja. On Sunday, the city was deserted, smoking, in ruins.

“I would like to call on the (Serbian) rebels in the name of life and sanity to surrender. … Further resistance is insane. It has no political foundation or moral right,” Tolj told a news conference.

The Bosnian government’s 5th Corps, pushing out of the Muslim enclave of Bihac, helped cut off retreat from the fighting, and Croatian sources said troops of a renegade Muslim warlord who had sided with the Krajina Serbs were surrendering in large numbers.

The Krajina Serbs’ Bosnian allies did not offer significant support, and Serbia posed only rhetorical challenge to Tudjman’s swift and successful weekend gamble.

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, interviewed from Vietnam on ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley,” said that Croatia’s military offensive against the rebel Serbs could have the positive effect of leading to a negotiated settlement to the regional conflict.

“We certainly didn’t want this to happen,” Christopher said of the massive Croatian assault against Serb-held areas of Croatia. “But the facts may possibly give rise to a new strategic situation which could turn out to our advantage.”

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