Croatia presses U.N. on demands


Tony Smith

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP)—Croats clinging to their last village in Serb-controlled land are in danger of being driven out or killed in retaliation for a brutal Croat attack, a U.N. official said Thursday.

U.N. civil affairs chief Cedric Thornberry made the report as tensions rose once more between Croats and Serbs—enemies in a 1991 war that left Croatia independent from former Yugoslavia, but a third of its territory in Serb hands.

The Croatian government demanded Wednesday that 14,000 U.N. peacekeepers, whose mandate expires Sept. 30, pack up and leave in two months if they cannot guarantee Serb-held land will be returned.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said Thursday that he himself had been tempted to recommend withdrawing U.N. troops from Croatia, but said that would result in more conflict.

‘‘I have been sorely tempted, in light of the criticism of (the U.N. force) by both sides, and the dangers and abuse to which its personnel are exposed, to recommend the withdrawal of the force altogether. But I am conscious that such a step could only result in further conflict,’‘ Boutros-Ghali wrote.

The original six-month U.N. mandate has been extended three times, but a national consensus has formed among Croats that the U.N. presence has only helped the Serbs.

In a report released Thursday, Boutros-Ghali recommended that the U.N. peacekeepers remain in Croatia for another six months. He also said he would extend ‘‘air support’‘ into Croatia to protect U.N. peacekeepers. He did not elaborate.

U.N. officials say the Croatian demand for a U.N. withdrawal appears to be a pressure tactic to wring concessions from the world body.

Fighting between Serbs and Croats largely ended in January 1992, and ethnic conflict moved to neighboring Bosnia last year. But warfare periodically erupts, and Thornberry said 117 ethnic Croats remaining in the village of Podlapaca were in danger of Serb retaliation for a Croatian attack on nearby villages on Sept. 9.

‘‘As we speak, Podlapaca is in danger of being ethnically cleansed,’‘ Thornberry, civilian chief of the U.N. peacekeeping force in former Yugoslavia, told a news conference.

Officials of the self-proclaimed Serbian Krajina Republic told the villagers of Podlapaca they were no longer safe, he said.

Croatian forces withdrew from the region under international pressure, and U.N. peacekeepers moved in. They found the villages of Divoselo, Citluk and Pocitelj wrecked and torched.

The return of Serb corpses, many mutilated beyond recognition, was sending tensions spiralling, Thornberry said.

Thornberry visited Podlapaca, 24 miles northeast of Medak, on Wednesday and said he found ‘‘panic has set in.’‘

‘‘They told me very clearly, ‘We must go, it’s the only thing that will give us peace of mind,’‘’ he said. Most other Croats left the region during the war, leaving Podlapaca as the last sizeable Croat settlement.

The U.N. military commander, French Gen. Jean Cot, said 14 more badly burned bodies had been found around Medak this week, bringing the U.N.-counted death toll to 49. Serbs say at least 65 people were killed.

A beefed-up unit of Czech U.N. peacekeepers was patrolling Podlapaca round the clock, Thornberry said, but added that peacekeepers were faced with a dilemma that has become all too familiar.

‘‘If you fail to support ethnic cleansing, you may sponsor murder and mayhem, you may cause the destruction you are actually trying to avoid,’‘ he said.

The attacks on Serb villages around Medak has drawn mixed reactions from Croatian officials. Military Chief of Staff Gen. Janko Bobetko boasted it was a taste of things to come for the Serbs. But Zarko Domljan told the Croatian parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, which he heads, that the commanders of the Medak offensive must be called to answer for their actions.

The Serbs charged Thursday that Croatian forces shelled two areas farther south, Obrovac and Drnis.

In Bosnia, sporadic fighting was reported between Muslim-led government forces and Croats. The heaviest was in several frequent troublespots: Gornji Vakuf, Fojnica and Mostar.

Sarajevo radio charged that Croatian artillery and tanks were pounding civilian targets on the eastern, Muslim-held side of Mostar. Government officials announced the Bosnian parliament would gather Tuesday to consider the latest peace plan put together in a summit meeting aboard a British warship in the Adriatic Sea on Monday.

In Dretelj, southern Bosnia, more than 500 malnourished Muslim prisoners left a prison camp, a Red Cross official said. About 30 women tried to prevent their release, demanding freedom for Croat prisoners.

Croatian and Bosnian leaders have agreed to release prisoners.