In what appeared to be conciliatory moves to secure a U.N. peacekeeping mission, the Serbian-led federal army Friday began pulling out of two bases near Zagreb, and Croatia’s president conceded that U.N. troops should be allowed to patrol his republic’s war zones.
Both gestures raised hopes that conditions might be created for foreign intervention to halt the Yugoslav civil war, which has taken at least 7,000 lives in five months.
However, the army convoys leaving Zagreb, the Croatian capital, headed for new positions just inside the neighboring republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, from which authorities in Zagreb fear they could easily stage new assaults on Croatia.
The troops and tanks at the Marshal Tito and Kerestinac barracks near Zagreb had been barricaded by Croatian national guardsmen for months, effectively stifling their firepower.
Among the U.N. conditions for sending a force to Yugoslavia are the demilitarization of the crisis areas--withdrawal of the federal army and demobilization of Croatian troops--and agreement among the combatants on where the U.N. “blue helmet” peacekeeping force should be deployed.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has called for a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone along the current front line, which would have the effect of sealing Serbia’s control over roughly one-third of Croatian territory.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman had previously insisted that the U.N. peacekeepers sweep the federal army and Serbian guerrillas from his republic, then deploy along Croatia’s eastern border.
Tudjman softened his position in a televised speech late Thursday, conceding that the U.N. troops would have to be allowed into the conflict areas to stop the Serb-Croat fighting.
“The war in Croatia has become a world-scale problem, and the consequence of this will be the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces in the country,” Tudjman told Croatian TV viewers. He said he was open to simultaneous deployment in the crisis areas and along the border.
In other moves aimed at winning U.N. assistance, Croatian and federal army officials met with the International Committee of the Red Cross to work out terms for prisoner exchanges and humanitarian aid to war victims. The Croatian Parliament also scheduled a session to consider a new law on minority rights, addressing another concern of mediators heeding the Serbian minority’s claim that it would face persecution in an independent Croatia.
The U.N. special envoy for Yugoslavia, former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, arrives in Belgrade today to assess conditions for a peacekeeping deployment and work out its details. A truce negotiated by Vance and European Community diplomats last weekend has significantly reduced fighting in Croatia although scattered outbreaks of violence have continued.
Croatian Radio reported seven wounded in fighting around Osijek, a city of 140,000 in eastern Croatia that has been under army bombardment for months.
EC monitors in Zagreb reported an orderly departure of about 200 tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military equipment from the Marshal Tito barracks, as well as unhampered withdrawal of a 135-vehicle convoy from the Kerestinac barracks a few hours later. EC spokesman Ed Koestal described the first pullouts as a test of the combatants’ sincerity in asking for U.N. intervention.
There were no immediate reports of withdrawals from other federal bases, including several along the Adriatic coast where fierce fighting has flared since the war began.
U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar has said a decision to deploy a peacekeeping force could be made as early as next week. Greece, Italy and Belgium have already offered to send troops.
Greece is Serbia’s sole ally in the Balkans, while Italy has joined Germany in pressing for recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, which declared independence on June 25. Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis told reporters in Rome that the European Community will probably recognize the two breakaway republics Dec. 18; German leaders have promised to extend diplomatic relations by the end of the year.