After taking no action for three days while Croatian troops routed rebel Krajina Serbs inside Croatia, Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic on Monday ordered tanks and artillery to take up battle positions near the Croatian border.
The show of force sent an unmistakable message to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman - do not attack Serb positions in eastern Croatia or face a wider war against a tougher opponent.
The huge column that left the Serbian capital of Belgrade on Monday morning included tanks, trucks towing heavy guns, and trucks towing pontoon bridges needed for crossing rivers and streams in the region.
The Croatian Army has quickly retaken most of the Krajina Serb region in an offensive that began Friday morning.
But the Croats have refrained from attacking Krajina Serb positions in eastern Croatia that border on Yugoslavia (Serbia), partly for fear of provoking Milosevic and his powerful armed forces.
The threat of a Serbian counterattack on the Croatian Army came as the refugee crisis in the battle zone worsened. U.N. officials said Monday that some 50,000 refugees had been trapped by a renewed outbreak of fighting in the Krajina Serb region.
Estimates of the number of Serbs fleeing the Krajina continued to rise amid indications that virtually the entire civilian and military population has left the area, now almost completely under Croatian control.
U.N. officials warned that between 150,000 and 200,000 Serbs may have been displaced and in need of shelter, making this the largest refugee crisis in the 4-year-old battle for the territory of the former Yugoslavia.
U.N. officials said a cease-fire between Croatia and the Krajina Serbs had been reached Monday morning, but it quickly collapsed when Croatian officials said that Bosnian Serb jets had bombed seven Croatian cities in violation of the “no-fly zone” in effect over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Croatian Defense Ministry called on NATO forces to launch air attacks against the Bosnian Serbs for violating the no-fly rule, but NATO did not respond. Two civilians were reported killed and 11 were wounded.
After the cease-fire broke down, there was fighting in Topusko and Karlovac, two cities south of Zagreb. The battle for Topusko endangered refugees who were trying to leave the city, U.N. officials said.
Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak said Monday evening that the remaining Krajina Serb soldiers who had challenged Croatian forces earlier on Monday had agreed to surrender. Two Krajina Serb tank companies had been holding out.
The defense minister said the Krajina Serb soldiers would be allowed to leave Croatia for freedom in Bosnia or Serbia provided they left their weapons behind. But he warned that soldiers suspected of war crimes will be detained for investigation.
“The operation has ended successfully,” Susak said. “For the last two years a myth had been built that the Serbs were unbeatable, and that we had to accept their terms, but this has proved otherwise, and now they will have to change their position throughout the region.”
Susak also said it is possible the war will widen because Croatia will not renounce its claim to eastern portions of the country still held by the Serbs, regardless of threats of a counterattack from Milosevic’s Serbian troops.
“We can liberate that area, by force if necessary,” he said. “Whether Serbia responds by force is up to them.”
He complained that NATO war planes did not take retaliatory action Monday against the Bosnian Serbs because of reluctance on the part of U.N. leaders to authorize an attack. NATO commanders were ready but were stopped by U.N. officials.
As the fighting simmered, Russian President Boris Yeltsin launched a personal peace initiative by inviting the leaders of Serbia and Croatia to come to Moscow for talks aimed at ending the war.
Monday was his first day back at work after a lengthy recovery period following what has been called a mild heart attack.
Croatian officials said Monday evening that no decision has been made on whether to accept Yeltsin’s invitation. It is unlikely the Croats will choose Russia as a mediator because Russia has long regarded the Serbs as allies.
In another development, State De partment officials said Monday that a small group of retired U.S. generals is working with Croatia to organize its army along democratic lines.
Under a contract signed with the Pentagon in 1994, the Virginia-based Military Professional Resources Inc. has visited Zagreb several times to advise the Croats how to ensure military discipline and civilian control of the army, the officials said. The retired generals are paid by Croatia and do not provide U.S. military equipment or tactical or strategic help to the republic.