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Serbian Forces Press Fight for Major Chunk of Croatia

August 01, 1991|CHARLES T. POWERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VIDUSEVAC, Croatia — The commander of the Croatian defense forces in Glina is actually no longer in Glina. He is here, across the river, beyond a wide, green valley, his dubious redoubt since last Friday.

"We did not abandon Glina," he said. "We pulled out for reasons of safety." That's one way to put it. "Rout" is another word that comes to mind, although it is not in commander Bogdan Vajagic's vocabulary.

In spare moments, of which he seems to have many, he is given to peering through the shutter slats of his command post--the rectory of a small, baroque Catholic church, perched temptingly on the crest of a hill--training his binoculars on a Yugoslav federal army tank on the opposite distant slope, its gun pointed directly at him.

"I disagree with my government," Vajagic said, still eyeing the tank through his field glasses. He meant his government in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, where the politicians decreed in June that Croatia should secede from Yugoslavia. "We should simply admit that this is a war between Serbia and Croatia. It is a war for territory."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 3, 1991 Home Edition Part A Page 2 Column 6 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Yugoslavia--An article Thursday on Yugoslavia overstated the size of the Krajina region of Croatia. The Krajina is best described as an archipelago of ethnic Serbian communities scattered across Croatia's border region with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, which also includes some Croatian-dominated communities. By most estimates, the Krajina totals less than one-third of Croatia.

There is no longer any doubt that the Croatian commander's assertion is true. What is going on now in Croatia is a war--a steady, step-by-step, armed campaign--and it is being fought by the Serbs, in a variety of military and paramilitary units, with the goal of wresting away a large chunk of what has been Croatian territory and joining it to Serbia.

The campaign has been progressing steadily for nearly two weeks, and by now it looks increasingly as if the Croats are being roundly whipped. Serbian units, charged up and scenting victory, and helped by the Yugoslav federal army (by fact if not by actual design), are slicing off more Croatian territory, towns and villages, every few days.

The end game for the Serbs and Croats in this fight is not yet perfectly clear, but the general sense is that when Serbia gains sufficient territory on the ground, it might then agree to talks with the aim of a sharp reduction in the map of Croatia and a significant gain for Serbia, including all the land that Serbian hard-liners refer to as "Krajina." At its most extreme, the ethnic Serbian region of Krajina is considered to be about two-thirds of what is now Croatia.

In the meantime, what the collapsing federation of Yugoslavia has on its hands is a thoroughgoing mess that it seems powerless to resolve.

The consternation is infecting the rest of Europe as well, with the European Community equally confounded about whether, or how, to impose a solution. The "Eurocrats" in Brussels have been debating whether to send observers (and if so, whether they should carry side arms). They decided Monday that the EC would send monitors only after a cease-fire is in place. This seems a moot point, since Serbia's paramilitary commanders are in no mood to talk of cease-fires.

While the hand-wringing goes on in Brussels, daily battles are taking place in Croatia, with daily loss of life and property. Refugees are streaming out of towns and villages in the path of the fighting, some with vivid stories of brutality and murder.

It was Glina's turn last week. Only 30 miles south of Zagreb, with a population estimated at 35% Croatian and 65% Serbian, it has been the scene of at least two earlier fights over control of the local police station. Units of the Yugoslav federal army moved in about a month ago and set up camp in the public park near the town center, its tanks parked ominously at all four corners.

Then, on Friday, Serbian units moved on the police station, still in the hands of Croatian defense forces. The army once again moved in. The soldiers may have acted, as they claim, to break up the combatants, but when the dust settled, the Croats, as commander Vajagic noted, decamped. Rapidly.

Vajagic said his casualties were light--two dead, two wounded. At least two civilians were killed as well, among them a German reporter, hit by sniper fire on the road out of Glina. Journalists who were in the town said the fighting was fierce and frightening, with mortar shells raining down heavily.

Four days later, a weekday, Glina seemed virtually deserted. Only one or two thousand of the population of 10,000 appeared to be around. Shops were closed, houses were shuttered. The army was still bivouacked on the town square.

Up in his command post next door to the church, its wall hit by tank or mortar fire, Vajagic appeared to be waiting, with no clear plan in mind. Indeed, that seemed true of the whole of Croatia's ragtag defense force this week, as yet another defense minister was appointed, replacing the last one, who had been in office just a month. Vajagic tries to put a good face on it.

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