Croatia Threatens to Retake Eastern Slavonia From Serbs : Balkans: Tudjman sets Nov. 30 as deadline to resolve land dispute. It could spark wider war.


Backing away from a pledge he made at the Ohio peace talks, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman is threatening to use force to take back the last piece of Serb-held land in Croatia if the dispute over it is not resolved within 25 days.

Tudjman also announced that he will not renew the United Nations’ mandate in Croatia when it expires at month’s end, further raising prospects for war.

U.S. and U.N. mediators held talks Sunday with rebel Croatian Serbs over return of the land, known as Eastern Slavonia, after a meeting on Saturday was abruptly canceled. Eastern Slavonia, seized by the Croatian Serbs in 1991 and bordering on Serbia proper, remains one of the most dangerous flash points threatening to ignite all-out war in the Balkans and derail a critical U.S.-sponsored peace initiative aimed at ending the 42-month-old conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During the negotiations at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, Tudjman pledged last week with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to work toward a peaceful solution to the Eastern Slavonia dispute.


But returning home over the weekend to Zagreb, the Croatian capital, Tudjman set a Nov. 30 deadline for Serbs to sign an agreement restoring Croatian authority over the fertile, oil-rich strip.

“There will be no extension,” Tudjman said. “We favor a peaceful solution, but it cannot be delayed beyond the Dayton conference and the U.N. mandate.”

Tudjman has previously threatened to expel the U.N. peacekeeping force that is headquartered in Zagreb, out of frustration over its inability to restore Serb-held territories to Croatia. After one such threat earlier this year, Croatia launched two military blitzes over U.N. cease-fire lines to take back most land controlled by the Croatian Serbs.

“Similar threats to throw out the U.N. in the past have been a precursor to military action,” U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness said in Zagreb. “That, coupled with President Tudjman’s public assertion that he will drink coffee in Vukovar by Christmas, is a very worrying signal.”

Vukovar is the heavily damaged city in Eastern Slavonia, now held by the Serbs, that has become a highly emotional symbol of resistance for both the Croats and Serbs.

Tudjman’s new ultimatum clearly steps up pressure on the Serbs, who are insisting that international monitors supervise any shift of Eastern Slavonia back to Croatian control. Croatian forces who evicted Serbs from other Croatian enclaves were accused by the United Nations of committing widespread atrocities, raising concerns among the Serbs in Eastern Slavonia about their safety.

In the talks Sunday in the Eastern Slavonia town of Erdut, U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith and U.N. envoy Thorvald Stoltenberg were meeting separately with the Serbs and Croats, with instructions to report back to the Dayton conference in the middle of the week.

“We will know then if agreement is possible, or if the differences are unbridgeable,” Serbian representative Milan Milanovic told the Tanjug News Agency of Belgrade.