Under a veil of secrecy, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman was admitted to an American hospital for treatment of a serious illness that threatens to sideline the Balkan power broker and raises concerns about the peace process in Bosnia, U.S. officials said Friday.
Tudjman, 74, was receiving medical care at Walter Reed Army Hospital for an ailment reported as everything from a stomach ulcer to cancer.
The white-haired strident nationalist was instrumental in the dissolution of the former Yugoslav federation in 1991 and then became a strategic instrument of American foreign policy as a conduit forweapons to the Bosnian Muslims and a central figure in the U.S.-sponsored accord that brought peace to the war-torn region nearly a year ago.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns confirmed that Tudjman had entered Walter Reed within the last 24 hours.
"He is there, obviously, on a visit concerning his health," Burns said. "I am not in a position to talk to you about the status of his health."
In the Croatian capital, Zagreb, officials at first would say only that Tudjman was undergoing a routine medical examination. Later--and only after CNN reported that Tudjman might have cancer--the state news agency, HINA, said that Tudjman was in Washington, where doctors had detected a stomach ulcer and enlarged lymph nodes.
Tudjman continues to carry out his duties as president and is expected to return to Zagreb by the end of next week, HINA said.
State television led its nightly news show with a report on the budget and relegated the Tudjman news to the final minute of the broadcast.
A middle-of-the-night news program labeled the reports of cancer unfounded speculation.
Reports from Washington gave a more bleak assessment. The Reuters news service quoted U.S. officials as saying Tudjman would need a two-week cancer treatment.
To skeptical residents of the Balkans, who remember how the illness and then death of Yugoslav strongman Marshal Josip Broz Tito were kept secret in 1980, the Croatian government's lack of forthrightness raised suspicions about Tudjman's health.
Because of the influence he wields over the Bosnian Croats, Tudjman, a former Communist general who later became a nationalist, is a guarantor of the peace pact he initialed in Dayton, Ohio, last November along with the presidents of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tudjman has been useful to Clinton administration officials trying to force the separatist Bosnian Croats to cooperate with the peace accord and give up their own efforts to build an illegal ministate.
Tudjman's demise would call into question whether the Bosnian Croats can be controlled. Yet some diplomats suggested that the overall peace process, already besieged on every front, might not suffer significantly--despite a likely power struggle in Tudjman's wake.
"Franjo Tudjman is no friend of the peace process," said a senior Western official who knows Tudjman personally. "Deep down, he is not committed. He believes that Croats are the defenders of Western civilization and have no business being integrated into a country of Muslims and Serbs. He is a separatist, so I would like to see a change. I think a change would be good."
Tudjman is regarded by many Croats as the father of their country, because Croatia became a republic under his rule. But his government's poor human rights record, especially the treatment of Croatia's minority Serbs, and his heavy-handed domination of most television and media have sullied his country's reputation in the West and almost cost Croatia membership in the Council of Europe.
Wilkinson reported from Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Marshall from Washington. Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.