The recent Croatian offensive captured a large swath of territory, redrawing the Balkan battle lines once again. With the conflict in the Balkans entering this new chapter, here's a review of what the many sides are after, where they are and, perhaps, where they are headed.
What are the differences between Serbs and Croats?
Although they speak nearly identical languages, Serbs and Croats are divided by history, religion and alphabet. The Roman Catholic Croats lived for centuries under Austro-Hungarian rule. The Orthodox Serbs lived for centuries under the rule of Ottoman Turks. The Croats use Latin script, the Serbs Cyrillic. In World War II, Croatia fell under the rule of Ustasha fascists who were allied with the Nazis and killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs. After the war, Croats and Serbs lived together in Communist Yugoslavia.
Why are they now at war?
After the breakup of Yugoslavia federation in 1991, four of its republics--Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia--declared independence. But many Serbs living in Bosnia and Croatia opposed these moves because they wanted to remain part of a union with another republic, Serbia. Independence led to fierce three-way fighting in Bosnia and Croatia. The Serbs were accused of massacring thousands of Muslims and of forcing out hundreds of thousands in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
How are Serbs allied with each other?
In principle, nationalist Serb leaders in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia are united in the dream of creating a "Greater Serbia." But Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, whose nationalist rhetoric sparked the Serb rebellions in Croatia and Bosnia, has withdrawn outright support for his Serb brethren in those former Yugoslav republics. Milosevic is trying to persuade the world to lift economic sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia as a result of the warfare. Thus, leaders of the rebel Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia turned to each other for support.
Why did Croatia attack the rebel Serbs now?
Croatia has tired of waiting for peaceful negotiations to re-integrate territory captured by the Serbian rebels. Since 1991, Croatia has trained and equipped an army of 100,000 despite a U.N. arms embargo against it. The army proved its strength in a two-day offensive in May, recapturing the most weakly defended chunk of Serb-held land. Croatia and Bosnia agreed July 22 to bolster their military cooperation. That gave the Croats the ability to move into western Bosnia, the launching point for their victory in Krajina.
THE SHIFT IN BATTLE LINES
1. In June, 1991, a rebellion, centered in Knin, grew into open warfare after Croatia seceded from Serb-led Yugoslavia. The rebels, backed by the powerful Yugoslav army, captured the Krajina region, which is the part of Croatia dominated by Serbs. The war killed about 10,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
2. The conflict then moved to Bosnia-Herzegovina. After three years of war, the Bosnian Serbs control about two-thirds of Bosnia. They have been isolated by the world community and Serbia for refusing an international peace plan. In the last 40 months, more than 200,000 people have been killed, most of them Muslims.
3. The conflict has come full circle, now centered on the very area it started four years ago. Croatian forces turned on Krajina last Friday. By Sunday morning Krajina, where Serbs lived for centuries, had "ceased to exist," said Croatia's Defense Ministry. An estimated 200,000 Serbs, civilian and military, are fleeing the region.
The Croatian offensive could create a new dynamic toward peace that would lead to a negotiated settlement of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, invited to Russia for peace talks, could find a solution to the crisis in former Yugoslav federtion. So far, Tudjman has turned down the offer.
Croatia, flush with success after clearing the Krajina region of rebel Serbs, could target Serbs in Bosnia, triggering a major showdown between Serbia and Croatia.
Serbs fleeing Croatia could be incorporated into the rebel Serb army in Bosnia, making it even stronger.
The Croatian military could push against Eastern Slavonia, which borders Serbia, also triggering a showdown with Serbia.
Troop counts for the six armies:
Bosnian Serbs: 80,000
Army of the Republic of Serb Krajina: 50,000*
Army of West Bosnia: 5,000*
Fighting the Serbs
Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina: 150,000
Army of Croatia: 115,000
Croatian Defense Council (Bosnian Croats): 50,000
* does not reflect recent surrenders
Sources: Times staff and wire reports