Reeling from battlefield losses to Croatia’s army, Bosnian Serbs appealed to the Yugoslav army Saturday to defend them in the name of ethnic ties - a move that could ignite a much wider war.
Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, which has been presenting itself as a peacemaker in an attempt to have devastating U.N. sanctions lifted, called an emergency meeting of its top leaders. No details of the meeting were immediately available.
U.N. officials appealed to Croatian and Serbian leaders to avert war.
All-out fighting in Croatia, where sporadic attacks have broken an uneasy truce in place since 1992, would certainly merge with the war in Bosnia. Both counties are fighting rebellious, well-armed Serb minorities.
Croatia has sent thousands of troops across the border into Bosnia, where together with Bosnian Croat militias they have made stunning advances. The Croatian army is massing troops for a possible attack on the self-declared capital of the Serb rebels in Croatia.
“I believe the Croatians are preparing seriously for war,” U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness told Associated Press Television.
Bosnian Serb leaders “urged Yugoslavia to actively engage itself” in protecting Serbs in neighboring countries, according to a statement by a Bosnian Serb leader, Momcilo Krajisnik, carried by independent Studio B television in Belgrade.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic met with the Yugoslav defense council - made up of top political and military leaders - to discuss “the current militarypolitical situation in the region,” the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug reported.
The Yugoslav leaders haven’t made any public comments about Croatia’s offensive and the battlefield reverses for the Serb rebels, who once were armed and supplied by Yugoslavia.
Under pressure from the United Nations, however, Milosevic has distanced himself from the Serbs, cutting off supplies.
On Saturday, Milosevic met with U.N. envoy Thorvald Stoltenberg and issued a joint appeal for a peaceful solution to the crisis. It wasn’t clear whether the appeal was issued before or after the Yugoslav security officials met.
The Croatian forces stunned the Bosnian Serbs on Friday by taking two strategic towns, Grahovo and Glamoc. The fall of Grahovo severed the road between Knin, the headquarters of Croatian Serb rebels, and Serb-held territory in Bosnia and Serbia.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic ordered his fighters to retake the two towns, Bosnian Serbs said Saturday night in their stronghold, Pale.
Croatian government forces appeared set to squeeze Knin from two sides. In addition to the forces that took Grahovo - and could attack from the east - troops have been massing in Croatia, to the west of the rebels.
U.N. officials said the Croats had moved ten brigades - up to 14,000 troops with tanks and artillery - along the western side of Serb holdings.
Croats on Friday shelled the Serb-held town of Strmica, between Grahovo and Knin on the Croatian-Bosnian border, the United Nations said. That could indicate they were moving toward Knin.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman said Croatia would “undertake decisive measures to protect its strategic interests and assist Bosnia.” The senior U.N. official in the former Yugoslavia, Yasushi Akashi, met with Tudjman on Saturday to urge restraint.
Serbs in Croatia sent a letter to the United Nations threatening to shell Croatian towns if the attacks continued, U.N. officials said.
“It’s another step in the escalation, and it’s extremely worrying,” Gunness said.
The market was closed and families were packing up and leaving, said U.N. sources in Knin who spoke on condition of anonymity. Knin radio broadcast a statement from the Croatian Serbs’ defense council, telling people not to panic and insisting Serb troops were prepared to counter any attack.
U.N. officials say as many as 10,000 Croatian army and Bosnian Croat troops are in western Bosnia. From Grahovo, they could push 50 miles north toward the Bihac enclave, which they have vowed to help defend.
About 600 more Croatian Serb soldiers headed to reinforce the rebels attacking Bihac, who have made gains in recent days, U.N. officials said.
Renegade Muslim troops allied with the Serbs have surrounded a 100-man U.N. battalion of Bangladeshi soldiers in the Bihac area, making them “potential hostages,” said U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko.
U.N. aid officials said about 13,000 Serb civilians fled the Croat offensive, further burdening aid organizations already struggling to help more than 30,000 refugees expelled by the Serbs from the fallen “safe areas” of Zepa and Srebrenica.