Responding to the threat of an all-out attack by the Croatian army, rebel Serbs besieging the Bosnian enclave of Bihac began withdrawing in large numbers Sunday, regrouping to protect their own territory.
With war tensions at a knife’s edge, a top U.N. official traveled to Knin, the rebel capital in the Serbadministered Krajina region of Croatia, to deliver a negotiate-or-else ultimatum from Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.
“The danger of war breaking out is very real. I think the Croatians are fully prepared to strike,” said Yasushi Akashi, the senior U.N. official in the former Yugoslav federation, as he flew to Knin on Sunday.
After a long day of talks there, Akashi said the Krajina Serbs had agreed to withdraw their troops from mostly Muslim Bihac, but U.N. military officials said it is too early to be sure that a sustained withdrawal is under way.
At a meeting with Akashi on Saturday, Tudjman called for an end to the attack on Bihac, a U.N.-declared “safe area” in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina near the border with Croatia. He demanded peace talks in Geneva that would immediately reopen an oil pipeline and rail links to Croatia through rebel territory, and lead to the re-integration of the rebel Serbs into Croatia.
In the accord reached with Akashi on Sunday, Krajina Serb leaders said they would not send troops into Bihac, and they agreed to allow U.N. monitors and humanitarian convoys free access to the enclave.
But - perhaps critically - the six-point agreement did not address Tudjman’s demands. Nor was any deadline established for the terms of the accord to be carried out in a part of the Balkans where pacts between ethnic factions are often violated before the ink is dry.
U.N. sources here see little chance of quick solutions after 3-1/2 years of stalemate and unabated ethnic hatred in the wake of a rebellion in which the Croatian Serb minority won large areas of Croatian territory in six months of brutal fighting in 1991.
As Akashi searches for a political settlement, some analysts say that Croatia has concluded that it can subdue the Croatian Serb rebels without undue international condemnation or intervention from Serbia, the onetime benefactor of the rebels.
In western Bosnia, a Croatian army force of up to 10,000 troops was at large after capturing two strategic towns and cutting supply links to Krajina to the west.
And a much larger Croatian army force - up to 30,000 troops, according to U.N. observers - was poised to attack Krajina directly from Croatia across cease-fire lines, U.N. officials said.
In what now looks like a major blunder, Croatian Serbs crossed into Bosnia earlier this month to join Bosnian Serbs and renegade Muslims in an assault on the Bihac pocket, where 160,000 people are isolated and food is scarce.
The three-pronged attack on Bihac - meant to forge direct links between Krajina and the Serbcontrolled territory in northern Bosnia - drove Bosnian government defenders back, winning swaths of farmland at harvest time and driving about 8,000 Muslims from their homes.
Then, following a new Bosnia-Croatia military accord, Croatian army troops crossed into western Bosnia last week in support of the Bosnian government forces and turned the tables.
On Friday, the Croatian raiders shocked the Serbs with their quick and apparently easy capture of the crossroads towns of Glamoc and Bosansko Grahovo, in the first challenge to Bosnian Serb control of their Bosnian territory since they seized nearly three-quarters of Bosnia in 1992.
Worse for the Croatian Serbs, one Croatian army column was reported within five miles of Knin, the rebel capital. About 13,000 Serbs are homeless in the Croatian army’s wake, the United Nations says.
By Saturday, U.N. sources here said, the Serbian assault on Bihac had lost steam. On Sunday, U.N. officers reported that hundreds of Krajina Serb soldiers were retreating from Bosnia.
Fighting in the Bihac pocket decreased dramatically between Saturday and Sunday, U.N. officers here said, although heavy shelling from Serbian guns was reported in one area Sunday afternoon.
U.N. spokeswoman Leah Melnick told reporters here that 1,300 Croatian Serbs had withdrawn from Bosnia, a clear sign that the Croatian army had achieved its initial goal of disrupting Serbian communications and supply lines and relieving pressure on Bihac.
Speaking by phone from Knin, Col. Andrew Leslie of the United Nations said Serbian officials were “very grim and worried” about a possible Croatian army assault. He described the situation as “explosive … one which could flare up to deadly proportions.”
Analysts said that domestic concerns in Croatia - the thirst to recover lost territory - underlie the new Croatian military alliance with the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
“If the Serb side shows no willingness to start serious negotiations, Croatia will be forced to carry out the re-integration of occupied areas by itself and extend maximum help to Bosnia to liberate Bihac,” Tudjman said in a statement Saturday night.
Military analysts in London say that the Croatian army of about 100,000 troops is more than a match for the Croatian Serbs and their Bosnian Serb allies.