Rebel Serbs have evacuated thousands of civilians from villages along a tense front line close to Croatia’s border with arch-enemy Serbia, U.N. officials reported Saturday.
Croatian Serbs denied the reports, but U.N. officials in the region spoke of a serious situation. Eastern Croatia was the most bitterly contested territory in the Serb-Croat war of 1991, which killed more than 10,000 people and left one-third of Croatia in rebel Serb hands.
The United Nations, meanwhile, reported there were Croatian artillery and sniper attacks on civilians during fighting last Monday and Tuesday. Croatia’s defense ministry called the report “a blatant lie.” It has restricted U.N. access to much of the area of central Croatia it recaptured last week.
In the east, Croatian army troops who infiltrated a U.N. buffer zone squared off across the Danube River with rebel Serb forces occupying territory along the border with Serbia. In southern Croatia, there were similar standoffs.
U.N. spokeswoman Kirsten Haupt, reached in the Serb-held region known as U.N. Sector East, said rebel Serb authorities began evacuating women and children from villages close to the buffer zone on Friday.
U.N. civilian police reported 2,000 to 3,000 refugees massed in Dalj, one of the easternmost Serb-held towns on the Danube.
Thousands more were thought to have gone to other areas, and U.N. officials saw some cars moving into Serbia, she said.
“It is very serious,” she said. Peacekeepers have hunkered down in posts in the buffer zone with orders to stay put, she said.
A Croatian Serb spokesman, Maj. Branko Opacic, said rebel Serb troops had been put on a state of alert, but insisted the region was calm and civilians had not been evacuated, the Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA reported.
He also denied reports that Yugoslav army tanks were massing across the border in Serbia - the dominant state in what remains of Yugoslavia.
U.N. personnel were unable to check the reports because of the difficulty of movement in the area.
The Yugoslav army has a permanent tank base just a few hundred yards from the Batina bridge, and has in the past moved tanks closer when tension rose in Croatia.
The Serb-dominated Yugoslav army backed the Serb rebellion that erupted after Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991.
On Saturday, an Associated Press reporter in Serbia saw an artillery regiment of 16 trucks, packed with soldiers and pulling 155-mm field guns, heading toward the Croatian border on the Zagreb-Belgrade highway.
But Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, whose nationalist stand fueled the rebellion in Croatia and Bosnia, has increasingly distanced himself from his former proxies, and the troop movements seemed to be more of a show of force rather than a sign of imminent military action.
U.S. diplomat Robert Frasure met with Milosevic Saturday night to express Washington’s concern about the protection of Serb civilians in Croatia, the Belgrade-based news agency Tanjug reported.
Official Serbian reaction to Croatia’s offensive this week on the formerly Serb-held area of western Slavonia was surprisingly low-key, condemning the Croatian action but also two Serb rocket attacks on Zagreb.
Feeling the pinch of isolation, Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia have pledged to support each other.
Croatian authorities sought to allay fears among Serbs in western Slavonia, particularly around the formerly divided town of Pakrac, distributing food, clothes and money and promising the protection of human rights and free movement.
Some 170 Serb men were released, part of a group of more than 1,000 rounded up in the Pakrac area after a mass surrender there on Thursday. Croatian authorities said the group was being screened for possible war criminals.
Those released reported no ill treatment.
Croatian Serb leader Milan Martic said he believed the Croats would honor pledges to treat Serb prisoners well, but only because of international pressure.
Milan Roncevic, 60, who was released Saturday morning, said the men were given a bath, sandwiches and juice.
In the village of Japaga, near Pakrac, about 100 Serb women waited for the Croatian Red Cross to distribute flour, bread, milk, oil and soap. They remained skeptical.
“We are being promised everything, but we wonder whether it will really be so,” said Dusanka Paunovic.