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BALKANS : Croatia Accused of Complicity in Serb ‘Cleansing’ of Muslims

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sudden collapse of Croatian defenses around two key Muslim strongholds in Bosnia-Herzegovina has inspired international charges that the cities were sacrificed as part of a Serb-Croat plot to divide Bosnia by sweeping out its Muslims.

Those accusations have been accompanied by demands for U.N. sanctions against Croatia for alleged complicity in the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosanski Brod and Jajce after their unexpected fall to Serbian rebels.

Humanitarian relief workers and foreign military observers say they are deeply suspicious of recent territorial trades that have swollen the flood of Bosnian refugees. They privately hold Croatian forces at least partly responsible for the overnight displacement of more than 25,000 Slavic Muslims from Jajce and for the expulsion of 22,000 Serbs from central Bosnia in the past few weeks.

But Zagreb officials and even some Western diplomats here see the accusations of copycat “ethnic cleansing” leveled at Croatia as deliberately exaggerated to suggest that all sides in the savage Bosnian conflict are equally to blame.

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If there is a conspiracy in play, they contend, it is one of guilt-ridden Western leaders desperately seeking to excuse their own failure to punish Serbian aggression or stop the genocide of Bosnia’s Muslims.

Serbian guerrillas backed by tanks, guns and aircraft left by the Yugoslav army have overrun 70% of Bosnia and expelled or killed most non-Serbian civilians. Shocking reports of gang rapes, torture, beatings and summary executions have poured out of Bosnia since last spring, prompting repeated denunciations from Washington and Western Europe but little action aside from commitments to deliver humanitarian aid.

In the absence of decisive intervention to halt the deadly Serbian march across Bosnia, Croatian forces have turned their attention to saving themselves and have abandoned their Muslim allies to face the Serbian onslaught virtually defenseless.

After Jajce fell to the Serbs, European Community peace envoy Lord Owen said economic and political sanctions should be considered against Croatia because its forces are “apparently contributing to ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia.

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Jajce and Bosanski Brod were overrun by Serbian forces shortly after Belgrade agreed to withdraw from Croatia’s strategic Prevlaka Peninsula on the Adriatic Sea coast. Because both cities had been well defended by Bosnian Croats, their fall triggered speculation that Zagreb had agreed as a price for recovering Prevlaka to let the two predominantly Muslim cities be conquered and “cleansed” of non-Serbs.

Both cities are along main roads linking Serbia with rebel-held territory in Bosnia and Croatia.

Drazen Budisa, leader of Croatia’s most moderate opposition party, says he has long been critical of President Franjo Tudjman’s reluctance to admit that Croatian forces have engaged in atrocities and harassment of non-Croats in areas of Bosnia they control.

But Budisa rejects Owen’s criticism as an attempt by Western politicians “to exonerate themselves for their catastrophic policy in this region.”

Western diplomats based in Zagreb also temper their governments’ official criticism of Croatia for complicity in the recent Muslim setbacks by pointing out the overwhelming catalogue of atrocities committed by Serbian forces since they began their armed uprising against Bosnian independence in March.

“People are really missing the point. What you have here is basically unchecked Serbian aggression that has displaced way over a million people and continues to generate refugees at a tempo we haven’t seen since the last world war,” said one senior Western diplomat. “The disinclination of the West to draw really obvious distinctions (between Serbian and Croatian abuses) is unbelievable. They are grasping for moral symmetry to excuse their own inaction.”


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