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Croatia Captures Rebel Serb City; Thousands Flee : Balkans: Takeover of Knin sends refugees on panicked flight to Serb-held areas of Bosnia. U.N. officer tells of bodies lying in the streets. Two more peacekeepers killed.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an accelerating offensive, tank-led Croatian forces hammered through flagging Serbian defenders in the Krajina region Saturday, capturing the rebel capital and driving tens of thousands of new refugees into panicked flight.

Two more international peacekeepers died from Croatian fire, about 200 were detained by Croatian troops, and artillery rained on civilian centers, the United Nations said.

The government of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman angrily rejected accusations of human rights abuses and promised that it would allow U.N. personnel into captured areas to safeguard rights and offer humanitarian assistance.

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By midday Saturday on the second day of war, Croatian tanks and infantry smashed into the devastated rebel capital of Knin, its streets littered with bodies.

The capture of Knin in 36 hours of fighting marked a stunning defeat for the Serbs at the outset of a new Balkan war that quickly merged with the ongoing one in Bosnia-Herzegovina next door.

Bosnian government troops entered Croatia for the first time Saturday to support advances by Croatian allies who recently short-circuited a Serbian assault on the enclave of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia. A Bosnian linkup with Croatian troops reported Saturday could open a corridor for aid to a region isolated by a Serbian siege and short of food.

In Knin on Saturday, jubilant invaders hoisted a huge red and white checkerboard Croatian flag atop the medieval citadel that is a symbol of the valley town flanked by mountains, a building that was headquarters of the 4-year-old revolt by secessionist Serbs against the rule of Croatia.

U.N. officers described scenes of devastation in the town of about 30,000 that the rebels had proclaimed their capital and Croatia had pounded with about 2,000 artillery shells in a day and a half.

“Chaos,” said one officer. Bodies of civilians and soldiers lay in city streets. Fires burned, gutting old stone houses with orange tile roofs. Doctors worked in the basement of a hospital hit twice by shellfire.

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Saturday morning, one shell hit near a U.N. sector headquarters north of town where more than 300 townspeople had taken shelter. Seven civilians died and a dozen were wounded, U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness said.

More Refugees

More refugees streamed into the base Saturday afternoon under the gaze of Croatian troops, who made no move to enter.

“We have reports of women passing babies over the wall into the safety of the compound,” Gunness said.

Serbian forces apparently abandoned their capital overnight Friday, and it appeared that the rebel government had decamped by the time shelling resumed around 9:15 a.m. Saturday. By noon, Croatian infantry, tanks and armored personnel carriers had entered the city without opposition, Gunness said.

U.N. officers in Knin told Gunness that there was some minor looting but that the Croatian troops were behaving professionally in a virtually deserted city.

“Almost the only people remaining were the dead and the dying,” said Maj. Alan Balfour from Knin, a key rail and road junction 120 miles south of Zagreb.

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U.N. peacekeepers took about 35 of the most seriously injured from the hospital to their base, U.N. spokesman Alun Roberts said by phone. En route, they saw “quite significant numbers of bodies in the streets, many of them women and children,” he said.

Later, U.N. officers, kept within their compound at Croatian instruction, said they heard scattered shooting. “One or two shots, silence, then one or two shots again,” said Roberts.

As night fell, there were more than 600 people sheltering inside the U.N. compound. “I don’t know if this is ethnic cleansing, but clearly the vast majority intend to leave Croatia,” Roberts said. Before they left, Knin officials appealed to the United Nations to evacuate 32,000 civilians trapped by the fighting.

“We don’t know where the 32,000 are, but we recognize that we will have to deal with even more than that,” Gunness said.

Thousands of Serbian civilians streamed out of the Knin area as war approached, moving northeast toward Serb-held territory in nearby Bosnia.

‘Epic Scenes of Chaos’

Associated Press reporter Julijana Mojsilovic, driving from Knin to Serb-held Bosnian territory early Saturday, said cars, tractors and trucks jammed roads out of the rebel Croatian region. She described the exodus as “epic scenes of chaos.”

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Croatian radio appealed for Serbs to stay at home, saying their safety was guaranteed. U.N. officials expected few takers after centuries of enmity and a brutal six-month war in 1991 that drove Croats from Krajina.

U.N. spokesman Philip Arnold said Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi expected quick implementation of an agreement that would allow the United Nations to safeguard Serbian civilians.

On Friday, European Union mediator Carl Bildt, angrily accusing Zagreb of wrecking peace talks, warned Tudjman that he could be held responsible for war crimes over the shelling of Serbian civilians.

On Saturday, Mate Granic, the Croatian foreign minister, lambasted Bildt in a letter for his “appalling” and “cynical” statement, making plain that the former Swedish foreign minister’s mediating days were over as far as Croatia is concerned.

In Europe’s largest battle between armies since World War II, the Croatian offensive by a 100,000-man, mostly conscript army against 50,000 defenders appeared to go into overdrive Saturday after modest gains Friday in the face of determined Serbian opposition.

“This is happening quicker than we might have expected,” U.N. military spokeswoman Maj. Rita Le Cage told reporters Saturday. Initial resistance “dissipated this morning and Croatian forces are making big gains,” she said. One senior U.N. military commander said he had been “surprised by the absence of significant defense.”

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Maj. Gen. Ivan Tolj, a spokesman for the Croatian Defense Ministry, said the advance had been twice as fast as planners anticipated and that the army had accomplished 80% of its objectives by Saturday afternoon.

‘Historic Days’

“These are historic days for Croatia, Europe and the world. Bihac is safe. Croatia has done what we believe the world wanted us to do,” he said.

U.N. spokesmen said the Bosnian army’s 5th Corps launched a limited attack Saturday across the border from Bihac to support the Croatian advance. As part of a Bosnian-Croatian military accord, the Croatian attacks relieving Bihac proved to be prologue to the all-out invasion of Krajina.

About 160,000 Muslims and Croats have been trapped in Bihac since the Bosnian war began in April, 1992. With Serbian forces blocking relief convoys, at least two people are reported to have died of starvation there this summer.

The Croatian Defense Ministry claimed a long list of captured towns Saturday and control of 270 square miles of land wrested from Croatian control by the Serbs in their 1991 revolt.

The United Nations said it could not confirm the Croatian claims but reported that the invaders appeared to have advanced along eight salients north to south, with southern thrusts, including those that converged Saturday on Knin, the most advanced.

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The United Nations said that dozens of its squad-sized observation posts were swallowed up in the Croatian advance, overrun or destroyed. Two Czech peacekeepers were killed by Croatian fire at one outpost, and three others wounded. Three Poles, a Russian and a Kenyan were also wounded. A Danish army sergeant was killed by a Croatian tank Friday.

Croatian troops detained about 200 peacekeepers--Canadians, Czechs, Kenyans and Poles--behind their lines. Gunness said the 105 Kenyans in the group were unaccounted for, though they were believed to be safe.

U.N. Posts Destroyed

The Croats also captured or destroyed 40 U.N. observation posts in the former buffer zone between combatants. The United Nations strongly protested the attacks to the Croatian government, eliciting apologies and promises that they would not recur.

“They try to avoid firing on the OPs [observation posts], right up to the minute they put a gun to your head and say, ‘Time to go,’ ” said Canadian Maj. Jeff Agnew. The Canadians lost five outposts Friday. The 43 troops from them, with their weapons, were ferried out of the battle area by Croatian liaison officers to a coastal town far from the fighting. The pattern was repeated with other captured peacekeepers, U.N. officials said.

The loss of the observation posts effectively blinded the United Nations in many areas, leaving officials unable to confirm Croatian claims.

Croatian radio, for example, reported the capture of the towns of Lovinac and Gracac and said Serbs were abandoning the Udbina air base town. Gracac is about 25 miles northwest of Knin. The Croats said there were virtually no Serbian defenses between the two towns. If confirmed, that would mean Croatian control of a broad band of territory north of Knin.

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For his part, ministry spokesman Tolj told reporters that Croatian troops had disabled some Serbian missile launchers in the Glina region that had been pointed at Zagreb. The Croatian capital was hit by rockets three months ago in reprisal for the Croats’ reconquest of a small Serbian enclave.

U.N. spokesmen did confirm that Serbs fired artillery on neighboring Croatian towns Saturday morning. Nine Croatian civilians had been killed in the border town of Sislak in two days of shelling, according to reporters who visited there Saturday.

With the aid of the Yugoslav army, ethnic Serbs who have lived for centuries as a minority in Croatia rebelled as federal Yugoslavia was disintegrating in 1991. In a six-month war, they captured about a third of Croatian national territory and dreamed of joining Serbian lands in Bosnia and Serbia itself to form a “Greater Serbia.”

A tenuous cease-fire halted the bloodshed in January, 1992, but international peace seekers had failed to bridge the gap between the Orthodox Christian Serbs and their Catholic Croat neighbors. Three separate peace initiatives in the days before the invasion wrung promises of considerable concessions from the Krajina Serbs, but not enough to satisfy Croatia.

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