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NEWS ANALYSIS : Croatia Is Said to Have Rebel Serbs in Its Sights

June 21, 1995|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZAGREB, Croatia — As world attention focuses on stepped-up fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Western diplomats and military analysts in neighboring Croatia are quietly predicting that a major Croatian government offensive is in the making here.

Based on troop movements, military intelligence and signals from the Croatian government, the analysts say Croatian forces will probably move on breakaway Serb positions before the end of the summer.

A government victory, which the analysts expect, would constitute the most significant setback for separatist Serbs since the war began four years ago and would leave them with only a sliver of territory on the eastern border with Serbia.

This would fuel regional tensions and would risk, in the worst possible scenario, igniting warfare between Croatia and Serbia.

"It is looking ominous," one Western diplomat said regarding the expected offensive. "It is just a matter of timing."

The assault is expected to center on recapturing Knin, a small southern town where the rebel Serbs make their headquarters, and the surrounding crescent-shaped region of separatist-controlled territory that straddles the northwest corner of Bosnia.

The rebel holdings form the heart of the self-styled breakaway republic of Krajina and contain crucial road and rail connections between central Croatia and the dangling Dalmatian coast. The area is also strategically significant because it has placed rebel Serb missiles within range of Zagreb, Croatia's capital.

Since the territory has been controlled by separatists, commercial activity between Zagreb and the southern port city of Split has been restricted to a narrow, winding coastal route, and southern Croats have complained of being physically and psychologically cut off from their country's heartland.

"From an economic point of view, the region itself is useless territory, as there are no major resources there," said Slaven Letica, a former political adviser to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. "But it provides an important link between north and south. Croatia can't survive economically without that link."

The separatists, who call themselves Krajina Serbs, gained control of one-third of Croatian territory in a bloody war that followed Croatia's declaration of independence from the Yugoslav federation in 1991. The fighting stopped in 1992 due to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, but talks to re-integrate the breakaway territory into Croatia have made little progress in three years.

The Croatian government has grown increasingly frustrated with the refusal of the Krajina Serb leadership--headed by hard-liner Milan Martic--to negotiate and has decided it will not wait any longer for a peaceful solution to the stalemate, the analysts said.

Some analysts predict that the government offensive will be delayed until after the summer tourism season, which has been depressed since 1991 but still pumped an estimated $2 billion into the national economy last year.

But several Western diplomats said summer tourism is in such a severe slump this year that military and political considerations alone will determine when government forces move. In a recent news conference, Tudjman posed the Oct. 31 expiration of the U.N. mandate in Croatia as a deadline for resolving the separatist problem.

Tourism has taken a nose dive since early May, when the Croatian army overran another rebel-controlled region, known as Western Slavonia, in a two-day blitzkrieg.

Croatian government troops and their Bosnian Croat allies have been shelling villages in the Knin area for several weeks in what military analysts described as harassment. The shelling is meant to bully the Krajina Serbs into giving in to Croatian rule or to provoke an ill-advised military response, the analysts said.

The Croatian government, not wanting to appear as the aggressor, is waiting for an opportunity to launch its offensive in the guise of retaliation, they said.

"If you want to shift the world's focus and remind them what is going on in Croatia, why not try to provoke Knin to shell Split while half of the world's media is there?" asked a military official with the U.N. Protection Force.

In a similar scenario, the fighting in Western Slavonia last month erupted when rebel Serbs killed three Croatian motorists and closed a recently reopened highway between Zagreb and Belgrade, capital of Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia. Croatian troops, who had been massing in the area for months, moved in to "secure safe passage on the highway," a government spokeswoman said, but went on to recapture the entire Serb-held enclave.

"They could have marched all the way to the Adriatic," one Western diplomat said. "Public support for this is very high."

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