Last Croatian Town on ‘Greater Serbia’ Wish List Has Jitters Despite Cease-Fire : Yugoslavia: Few of Petrinja’s residents expect peace to hold. Truce appears to be nothing more than a chance for rivals to reload.
This pleasant town of manicured parks and shady boulevards shared by Serbs and Croats for centuries is about all that stands between armed guerrillas and their dream of a Greater Serbia.
Despite a cease-fire to which both sides have paid lip service, few of Petrinja’s 30,000 residents expect it to be peaceful here much longer.
The surrounding woods, in the full bloom of summer, are thick with Serbian rebels, whom Croatian authorities accuse of mounting a pincers movement that will soon close with a massive assault to take Petrinja.
“We are expecting the terrorists to attack at any moment,” insisted a Croatian newspaper vendor who called himself Zdenko. “Most of the Serbs have already fled from the town in advance of the attack, to leave it open.”
Yet two Serbian pensioners resting on a park bench almost within earshot of the Croat’s kiosk dismissed local fears of a Serbian attack as “propaganda from Zagreb.”
“I don’t believe the two sides will disengage,” said one of them, 63-year-old Djura Pesut. “While both sides are staring down gun barrels, there can’t be any peace.”
Serbian guerrillas already occupy most of the ethnically mixed stretch of Croatian territory known as the Krajina, along the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. Only Petrinja, where Serbs account for about 40% of the population, remains outside the boundary that militants have sketched in as the border of a so-called Greater Serbia to be built on the ruins of Yugoslavia.
Rebel leaders agreed to a cease-fire announced by the federal presidency in Belgrade late Tuesday that, at least formally, took effect at 6 a.m. Wednesday. But there were few signs that the halt in shooting was anything but a chance for both sides to reload.
“We will not withdraw until we have concrete guarantees that the other side will do the same,” stated Ivan Bobetko, regional commander of the Croatian police forces headquartered in nearby Sisak. “They (Serbs and the federal army) have broken countless earlier agreements.”
Bobetko said he fully expected shooting to begin again overnight.
The nerve center of the Croatian defense effort, the Sisak station was teeming with heavily armed troops in combat gear who exuded perplexing confidence in view of the heavy losses they have suffered.
Dozens of young reservists sporting AK-47 assault rifles smoked and joked while boarding buses to relieve fellow policemen manning roadblocks and other police stations in the guerrilla territory. One young policewoman organizing the deployment had adorned her camouflage T-shirt with a dainty mother-of-pearl rosary.
Croatia, which is predominantly Roman Catholic, has lost at least 15% of its territory in recent days to Serbian guerrillas. Serbs, many of whom are Orthodox believers, fear that an independent Croatia would revert to the fascist policies of the World War II-era Ustasha regime, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies who refused to embrace Catholicism.
The rebels, claiming to represent the interests of Croatia’s 600,000 ethnic Serbs, want the Krajina to remain aligned with Communist-ruled Serbia.
Officials in the Croatian capital of Zagreb claimed Wednesday that Serbs violated the cease-fire less than an hour after it took effect.
More than 100 mortar rounds were fired on villages just east of Petrinja, about 30 miles southwest of Zagreb, said Deputy Interior Minister Milan Brezak.
Brezak told reporters he could not guarantee there would be no retaliation.
Croatian police in Sisak also claimed there had been sniper fire by Serbs in the village of Komarevo, and that the guerrillas were not abiding by terms of the truce calling on both sides to pull back out of the range of the other’s weapons.
In another incident illustrating the tense and volatile mood, Serbian guerrillas took seven journalists from Spain and Italy captive in the village of Blinja, about eight miles south of Petrinja. After more than two hours of gunpoint interrogation, during which the reporters were accused of being spies for the Croatian police, they were let go, but the rebels kept one of their two cars and all valuables, including a laptop computer and shortwave radios.
“They lined us up and threatened to shoot us,” said Hermann Tertsch of Spain’s prestigious El Pais daily paper.
Ethnic clashes have killed more than 200 in Croatia since the republic declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25. Neighboring Slovenia also pulled out of the federation, but after a determined battle with the Yugoslav army that took 70 lives, the ethnically homogeneous republic has effectively been granted sovereignty.
Unlike a cease-fire agreement that has held for five weeks in Slovenia, the truce for Croatia is vague and virtually unenforceable. Neither side has made any move to comply with the calls for withdrawal to create a three-mile-wide buffer zone, and there are no provisions for monitoring the agreement or bringing Serbs and Croats to the negotiating table.
The 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe convenes in Prague today to seek a solution to end the violence in Yugoslavia.
However, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic warned in an interview with the London-based Sky News network that foreign intervention was unwelcome because “we have to clean our own house ourselves.”