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Croatia Says It Stalled Main Army Thrust

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal army forces continued their attacks in eastern Croatia and along the Adriatic coast Saturday, but Croatian officials said they have stalled the main thrust of the army’s attack at Vukovar, breaking through army lines to resupply the city’s defenders.

The overall situation, however, is difficult to assess with only sketchy reports coming from the front lines during the second day of a sharp escalation in the fighting that has torn Yugoslavia apart and left the federation’s government virtually without authority.

The government of the breakaway Croatian republic offered to relieve its siege of army installations in Croatia if the federal army ended its attack, but a similar offer issued late Friday had no effect, and there was little indication that the new offer would receive more favorable consideration.

Croatian officials, however, spoke with unusual assurance Saturday of their forces’ success in stalling the army’s push to regain control of their barracks and installations in Vukovar and Osijek.

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“We broke though the army’s lines at 5 a.m.,” said Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak, “and we were able to resupply our forces at Vukovar. They are now supplied with antitank weapons and antiaircraft weapons.”

Vladimir Seks, the mayor of the Danube River city of Osijek, the scene of major destruction that has gone on for about five weeks, said Croatian National Guard units had succeeded in taking over a barracks and army storage facility about 30 miles west of Osijek, where the guardsmen found stores of antitank weapons.

The Croatian forces, until about a week ago, had been losing steadily in battles with the federal army and Serbian guerrilla units, who oppose Croatia’s bid to secede from the Yugoslav federation. The Serbian guerrilla units, with close support from the army, have sliced off about one-third of Croatian territory, which they say should be annexed to a greatly expanded Serbian republic.

Croatia, with about 80,000 poorly trained and poorly equipped national guardsmen and police units, has been heavily outgunned by the better-equipped guerrillas and by the firepower--including tanks, heavy artillery and jet fighters--employed by the Yugoslav federal army, with about 180,000 troops in uniform.

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But Croatia’s diminishing military prospects took a turn for the better a week ago when the Croatian government ordered the blockade of all federal military installations in the republic. All of these facilities, ranging from small communications centers to major barracks, were surrounded by Croatian guardsmen, who shut off water, electricity and food supplies.

The move not only buoyed the sagging spirit of Croatia’s citizens and the fortunes of its government--still heavily criticized for its “soft” conduct of the war--but it has now begun to yield badly needed equipment to fight the war. Croatia has virtually no tanks or weapons to combat opposing forces.

Reports from the East Slavonia towns of Vukovar and Vincovci told of virtually no fighting there Saturday, indicating that the federal army’s push into the region had slowed, although perhaps only temporarily.

The army’s advance began Thursday when a six-mile-long column of reinforcements, including more than 100 tanks and scores of heavy guns, left the federal capital of Belgrade, heading to Croatia.

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The federal minister of defense, Gen. Veljko Kadijevic, announced that the troops were being sent to relieve the besieged army facilities in Croatia. Mobilized federal units were on the move in Croatia’s neighboring republic to the south, Bosnia-Herzegovina, bringing protests from the republic’s leadership and prompting Croatian residents in the area to throw up roadblocks to prevent their movement.

Fighting that erupted Friday was the death blow to the latest attempt at a cease-fire, engineered on Tuesday by Britain’s Lord Carrington and signed by presidents of Serbia and Croatia as well as by Gen. Kadijevic.

Apparently alarmed at the early reports of extensive fighting, which ranged across Croatia from the Danube to the Adriatic (where federal warplanes attacked at Split and Sibenik), Croatian President Franjo Tudjman appealed to Kadijevic to withdraw his troops in return for a lifting of the Croatian blockade of the army’s installations.

The bid brought a sharp rejection from Kadijevic, who said that the Croats had shown that “they cannot be trusted.”

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He sounded even more ominous Saturday in an interview with Belgrade television, asserting that Yugoslavia, as it had been known, has virtually ceased to exist.

“The fact is that there no longer is a Yugoslavia such as there was until recently,” he declared.

“The country is moving very rapidly toward the maelstrom of an all-encompassing civil war and genocide against the Serbian population in Croatia.”

Kadijevic denied that the army had effectively seized power by launching its offensive without the backing of the Yugoslavia collective presidency. He said the army had been forced to take “decisive action” to liberate its blockaded barracks in Croatia.

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In Zagreb, where sporadic shooting broke out in the night Saturday, Gen. Andrija Reseta, a deputy commander of the federal army region in the area, predicted that the Croatian National Guard units in Slavonia, now surrounding army installations, “will be surrounded themselves shortly.”

Gojko Susak, the Croatian defense minister, said the Croatian government would not offer any further concessions to the army. “Our proposal will not change,” he said.

“The offer demonstrates our willingness to negotiate,” he said, “but we will not negotiate out of fear. We have no doubt about the final outcome, but we will do all we can to end the conflict.”

Should the army agree to withdraw from its positions, he said, Croatian forces would restore power and water to the blockaded forces and would allow the soldiers inside to leave. Croatia, he said, would even continue to pay benefits and allowances to army personnel who wished to join the Croatian officers. The government, however, would not return the army’s weapons and equipment.

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