Punching their way into Bosnian Serb territory, Croatian government troops Friday captured key towns in western Bosnia in an apparent effort to relieve their floundering Muslim allies.
The campaign could open a new and explosive chapter in the war if the fighting seeps from Bosnia across the border into Croatia.
United Nations spokesman Philip Arnold said Friday night: “It is very close now … to a large conflagration.”
Grahovo, the first town to fall to the Croats on Friday, is located along a vital north-south supply route linking the Croatian Serb stronghold of Knin with Bosnian Serb territory. Croatian television showed gleeful soldiers riding on tanks, flashing victory signs at the cameras as they drove through town.
Later Friday, the Bosnian Serb army acknowledged that Croats also had taken the town of Glamoc, southeast of Grahovo.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s office said his troops “have temporarily withdrawn to reserve positions.” Karadzic ordered a general mobilization of all able-bodied men aged 18 to 60 on Serb-held territory.
As many as 10,000 Croatian government troops and Bosnian Croat militia have been massing in the region in recent weeks. Croatian authorities said they were preparing to intervene in the Serb assault on Bihac in Bosnia’s northwest corner, the latest Bosnian Muslim “safe haven” to come under attack.
But Grahovo is 50 miles south of Bihac, and U.N. military sources suspect the Croats are using Bihac as a pretext to move toward the much closer town of Knin, headquarters of rebel Serbs in Croatia.
Struggling to enforce a modicum of calm on the region, the United Nations is particularly distressed about the current fighting. From a strategic standpoint, it poses far more risk than the Serb capture of the U.N.-declared safe areas of Srebrenica and Zepa earlier this month.
It is in Bihac and the westernmost stretch of Bosnia that the separate but parallel wars in Bosnia and Croatia most perilously collide; an escalation of the fighting there could ignite much of the former Yugoslavia.
Aside from an outbreak in early May, Croatia has been relatively quiet since late 1991. This summer, it even has lured a trickle of tourists back to its warm beaches on the Adriatic Coast. But in recent weeks, even as the world’s attention was riveted by accounts of appalling ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia, U.N. officials and diplomats have watched with growing alarm the Serb attacks on villages in the so-called “Bihac pocket” and the buildup of troops in western Bosnia.
“The situation is very dangerous,” said Col. Norris Pettis, a U.N. military analyst. “The escalation to conflict is happening very quickly.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department issued a strongly worded advisory for Americans to leave Croatia. Croatian Airlines also has canceled flights to the coastal town of Zadar, not far from Knin, because of the heightened security threat.
Croatian officials say they are being dragged reluctantly back into war because of NATO’s failure thus far to act decisively to protect Bihac from the Serbs.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed that we will not have to move in,” Zoran Bosnjak, a high-ranking adviser in the Croatian foreign affairs ministry, said Friday.
Last week, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman signed a joint declaration with Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegovic, promising that Croatia would intervene to prevent the fall of Bihac. The Croatians argue that they are entitled to intervene because rebel Serbs working from within Croatia are assisting in the siege of Bihac.
The fall of the Bihac pocket - a thumb of Bosnian land enclosed on three sides by Serb-held Croatian territory - would eliminate the only thing preventing Bosnian Serbs and Croatian Serbs from unifying their holdings into a “Greater Serbia.”
“Croatia’s security would be gravely jeopardized by the fall of Bihac,” Bosnjak said. “It would be like a very strong fist pointed at the stomach of Croatia.”
Another significant concern is that the 200,000 Bosnian residents of the Bihac enclave would become refugees, most likely fleeing to Croatia, where hundreds of thousands already have sought refuge.
Indeed, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Friday that the fighting in western Bosnia has begun another wave of refugees. About 8,000 Muslims have fled their homes in the northern end of the Bihac enclave, the area hardest hit by the Serb offensive; in addition, about 5,000 new Serb refugees have fled from Croatian forces in Grahovo and Glamoc.
Tanwir Shahzada, the UNHCR coordinator for Bihac, said he thinks the Bosnians of Bihac are experiencing the most serious food crisis of anybody in the war-ravaged country.
“There is no flour even on the black market. We’ve had at least two cases of starvation,” Shahzada said Friday. “An old woman said to me not long ago, ‘Give me some food, and if you can’t, then give me some poison.”’
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