NEWS ANALYSIS : Croatia Risks Cutting Its Own Throat : Balkans: Military interference in Bosnia opens door to sanctions and could encourage Serbian aggression.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An ethnic carve-up of Bosnia-Herzegovina might fulfill nationalist dreams of a Greater Croatia, but opposition leaders, human rights advocates and even some allies of President Franjo Tudjman are beginning to see the expansion drive as the greatest peril confronting the country.

Partitioning Bosnia into three ethnic ministates would lead to a Greater Serbia on Croatia's border and maroon at least two-thirds of Bosnia's 750,000 Croats in resentful Serbian and Muslim enclaves.

Zagreb's conscription of Croatian reservists to fight for territory in central Bosnia is also provoking threats of economic sanctions by the West, which has imposed punitive embargoes on Serbia for similar interference in the Bosnian crisis.

Most dangerous, in the view of increasing numbers of Croats and U.N. observers, is the precedent of accommodating forced border changes that would be set by dividing Bosnia. That could cement rebel Serb control over occupied territory in Croatia.

"Morality and sentimentality aside, (it) would not be in Croatian national interests" if Bosnia were to be divided, warned Ante Tripalo, head of the Soros Foundation's Open Society Fund and a leading member of the liberal Croatian People's Party. "If you can change borders in Bosnia, it sets a precedent that allows Croatian borders to change too."

Rebel Serbs conquered and occupied nearly one-third of Croatia in a six-month war in 1991 and have declared it the independent Republic of Serbian Krajina.

More than 14,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops were deployed to the occupied territory almost two years ago to await a breakthrough in paralyzed peace talks between Zagreb authorities and the Serbian rebels.

But no sooner had the U.N. soldiers taken up patrols than the Serb nationalist quest for a Greater Serbia turned its attention to Bosnian territory.

Rebels armed and instigated by Belgrade laid siege to Sarajevo and other cities, setting in motion a bloody cycle of attack and retaliation that now has all three Bosnian ethnic groups--Serbs, Croats and Muslims--battling for territory on which to build segregated states.

"It has been clear since 1991 that Tudjman and (Serbian President Slobodan) Milosevic have a deal to divide Bosnia that does not take into account the Muslims," Tripalo said. "The deal was to divide Bosnia in two. But what has happened when they have tried to divide into three is genocide among all three peoples."

Tudjman and Milosevic met in early 1991, before their own conflict, in what one senior Croatian government source confirmed was a session in which they discussed how they should divide Bosnia.

The rival presidents have met several times since to mark off borders in Bosnia, and last May they dispatched their Bosnian proxies, Serb nationalist Radovan Karadzic and his Croat counterpart, Mate Boban, to draw a map detailing a three-way carve-up at a secret meeting in Montenegro.

The Karadzic-Boban formula has been used as a basis for partition talks in Geneva being mediated by Britain's Lord Owen and special U.N. envoy Thorvald Stoltenberg.

But Bosnia's largest nationality, Muslim Slavs who made up 44% of the population before the war, have spurned their attackers' plans for uneven partitioning; they have lately been putting up a fierce fight for the country's survival.

Muslim-led government troops have taken village after village from their former allies, the Bosnian Croat forces that turned on them more than a year ago.

Tudjman threatened in a New Year's Day speech to send more government troops to back Croats in Bosnia.

Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic conceded in an interview that Bosnian Croats "made some mistakes" that led to collapse of the Muslim-Croat alliance, including the massacre of Muslim civilians in the central Bosnian villages of Ahmici and Stupni Do and the destruction of a historic 400-year-old stone bridge in the southern city of Mostar.

In the face of mounting Bosnian Croat losses to poorly armed but determined Bosnian government troops, Granic said the Zagreb leadership has come to regard repair of the Croat-Muslim alliance as the highest priority.

"The problem is that trust between the peoples is at a very, very low level," he said of Croats and Muslims, now engaged in a seemingly unstoppable bloodletting.

While Granic seemed reluctant to openly criticize Tudjman or Gojko Susak--the Bosnian-born, ardently nationalist Croatian defense minister--others in the leadership have expressed concern that Croatian involvement in Bosnia is endangering the nation's future.

"I don't think it is in our interest to risk our image as a nation prepared to come to a peaceful agreement by getting involved in open military intervention," parliamentary Speaker Stipe Mesic told the weekly Globus.

Mesic pointed out that partitioning Bosnia and letting Croatian and Serbian regions annex to their neighboring mother states would extend Serb rule along most of Croatia's border, making it easier for Greater Serbia to supply rebels in Krajina.

"Croatia's major strategic interest is that no borders be changed," Mesic told the newspaper.

Mario Nobilo, Croatia's U.N. ambassador, conceded that dividing Bosnia poses "the risk of a precedent" that could result in losing international support for Zagreb's campaign to recover Krajina.

But, like most in the inner circle of Tudjman's ruling Croatian Democratic Union, he appeared confident that Croatia can somehow annex part of Bosnia without sacrificing its own territorial integrity.

Some officials of the U.N. Protection Force seeking to defuse the Balkan crisis contend that Tudjman's simultaneous push for expansion into Bosnia and recovery of lost land from the Serbs risks a showdown war between Zagreb and Belgrade that the Serbs would be likely to win.

"They could lead their country into an appalling disaster," one senior U.N. official said of Tudjman and a handful of Bosnian-born Croatian government ministers pursuing annexation of the Herzegovina region. "There is a very real danger that Croatia could crumble as a state within the next few years, if some of the current, very shortsighted policies are not changed."

Zoran Pusic, head of the Defense of Human Rights group and a prominent member of the opposition Social Democratic Union, has been documenting what he says are illegal actions by the Croatian leadership to send troops to back Bosnian Croats in the fight against the Muslim-led government.

He and other human rights monitors contend that at least 2,000 Croatian citizens have been called up and dispatched to Bosnia in the last month.

"It is intolerable for an independent state to allow its citizens to be drafted by some other army," Pusic said of the mobilizations. "These people have been informed at the military camps they were taken to that they were being drafted, not by the Croatian army, but by the HVO"--Bosnian Croat forces.

Pusic said his groups aims to publicize government human rights violations in hopes of deterring them: "I can't explain--I can't even understand--such blindness on the part of the Croatian government in its policy toward Bosnia."

He lamented the lack of logic in Boban's having turned on Muslim allies, who outnumbered Bosnia's Croats more than 2 to 1.

"The government has stated repeatedly that it sought to protect the interests of Croats in Bosnia, but it actually endangered most of the Croatian people there" by pushing for delineation of a Croatian ministate that is home to less than one-third of Bosnian Croats. The rest are scattered throughout the republic and might be pressured to migrate out of the Serbian and Muslim regions.

"Our government is still sensitive to international pressure," Pusic said, predicting that Tudjman may curtail support to the Bosnian Croats if Western leaders keep threatening sanctions.

Mira Ljubic-Lorger, another opposition figure, insists that there is hope for democracy in Croatia and predicts an ouster of the Tudjman regime by the year's end.

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