BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Still another of unraveling Yugoslavia's six republics acted to distance itself from the fraying Balkan federation Sunday, while new fighting in Croatia defied efforts by the European Community to stop ethnic bloodshed there from mushrooming into full-scale civil war.
In peaceful contrast to scenes of violence in the north, 1.3 million voters turned out in the southern republic of Macedonia to pass judgment in a referendum that would open the way to a break with the old Yugoslavia.
Reports from Skopje, the dusty capital of the republic of 2 million that is Yugoslavia's poorest, said that turnout was heavy and without serious incident. Approval of a referendum that would empower the republic's government to declare independence is expected to be massive.
New clashes in eastern Croatia on Sunday appeared to represent an attempt by Serbian irregulars supported by Yugoslav army units to cut off the breakaway republic's rich eastern region from the Croatian capital at Zagreb.
The Reuters news agency reported an attack by Yugoslav air force jets on the small airport outside the beleaguered Croatian provincial capital of Osijek. A crop-duster was destroyed, but there were no casualties.
An unknown number of soldiers died, however, in fighting between Croatian forces and Serbs near the town of Pakrac, Zagreb Radio reported. Pakrac is not far from where Serbian irregulars have seized control of the Belgrade-Zagreb superhighway that is the principal road link between Europe and the Middle East.
Violence also came to Belgrade, where one elderly man was critically injured when a bomb exploded in the restroom of a cafe frequented by ultranationalist groups.
Macedonian leaders, fearing the ambitions of powerful northern neighbor Serbia, say they will not remain in a Serbian-dominated federation. But they have held out the possibility of remaining within a loose grouping of the republics that currently form Yugoslavia. The alpine republic of Slovenia, together with Croatia, declared independence June 25 on the basis of similar authorizing referendums.
Macedonia, which sits in the heart of the Balkan peninsula bounded by Bulgaria, Greece and Albania, fears not only Serbia but also territorial claims by its neighbors. An underdeveloped republic without a strong economic base, Macedonia is governed by an Eastern Orthodox majority that has strained relations with a 30% ethnic Albanian minority.
In the aftermath of a peace conference sponsored by the 12-nation European Community at The Hague on Saturday, Yugoslavia's intensely partisan press echoed angry accusations made there by Serbian and Croatian leaders.
"Until this war was forced upon us, there could be talk about an alliance of sovereign (Yugoslav) states. We can no longer talk about that today," Croatian President Franjo Tudjman told the Zagreb newspaper Vjesnik. Saturday's meeting had laid bare Serbia's "terrorist tactics," he added.
The Serbian-controlled Belgrade newspaper Politika, by contrast, accused Germany of trying to hijack the European Community peace initiative to "build a Fourth Reich" in Eastern Europe. Serbia accuses Germany and Austria of openly supporting Croatia, echoing the Third Reich's support of a Quisling state there during World War II.
The Germany Embassy here has been the target of Serbian protesters, who on Sunday paraded their wrath outside the Vatican Embassy. They shouted accusations that Pope John Paul II supports "neo-fascism in Croatia."
Germany has warned that it will recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia if fighting continues. A cease-fire agreement last Monday that should have brought the separation of forces and the disbandment of irregular units on both sides was unanimously agreed to--and universally ignored.
European observers are prepared to monitor a cease-fire, if one can be achieved, while EC diplomats begin what is certain to be a long and acrimonious arbitration process to settle the conflict between Serbs and Croats.
Many of the 600,000 Serbs in Croatia, a 12% minority, live in areas not far from the frontier with Serbia. Arguing that Yugoslavia's current internal borders are purely administrative, Serbia insists that Serbs in Croatia must have the right to remain under Belgrade authority if Croatia follows up its declaration of independence with formal secession. Croatia says its current borders are inviolable.