CROATIA-UNITED NATIONS: Peacekeepers’ March Withdrawal Angers Serbs

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Jan 19 1995 (IPS) - The government of rump Yugoslavia and the leadership of the Serb-held territory in Krajina have expressed concern over Croatia’s decision to end the mandate of 15,000- strong U.N. force on its territory by the end of March.

The government of Serbia and Montenegro issued a statement this week saying that the decision of Croatia causes deep concern and the prime minister Radoje Kontic has written to the United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to express Belgrade’s dissatisfaction at the Zagreb decision.

Croatian president Franjo Tudjman announced last Thursday that the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) would have to leave Croatia after its mandate expires on March 31.

Tudjman has charged that UNPROFOR serves only as a buffer between government and the rebel Serb forces and has thus perpetuated the country’s de facto division.

Tudjman said: “Our decision not to extend UNPROFOR’s mandate is on the basis of the principle that we want to resolve the main question of democratic Croatia — the problem of the occupied Croatian territories — in a peaceful way.

“The UNPROFOR withdrawal will not lead to an exacerbation of tension or to the spread of war either in Croatia or throughout the former Yugoslavia. On the contrary it will speed up the peaceful processes aimed at resolving the problem of the occupied areas.”

However, Croatian Serbs have warned that Tudjman’s decision to order peacekeepers out of the country was a pretext for Croatia to resume their dormant war with them.

“Croatia has no right to be the only side to decide whether the United Nations troops remain or not,” Milan Babic, foreign minister of the Krajina Serbs said Monday.

“The decision for the United Nations troops to come here was made by the U.N. Security Council, in agreement with sides involved in the fighting.”

On Tuesday the U.N. Security Council Tuesday strongly urged the government of Croatia not to abandon its plans to end the mission of U.N. peacekeepers there by Mar 31.

In a non-binding statement, Council President Emilio Cardenas of Argentina said the Council believes that the maintenance of 12,000 U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR) soldiers in Croatia “is of vital importance for regional peace and security”.

He added that the United Nations still has a role to play in ensuring that Croatia’s unity be preserved despite the conflict between the Croatian government and secessionist Croatian Serbs who control the Krajina region.

Forces from Serbia and Montenegro helped Serbs in Croatia — in the Krajina region — in their rebellion against Zagreb in the Autumn of 1991.

The rebellion of Croatian Serbs exploded after Zagreb decided to secede from the six-member Yugoslav Federation at the time.

Croatian Serbs, who made up 12.2 percent of Croatia’s 4.7 million people were helped by the Yugoslav Federal Army and after six months of war in 1991 gained control over a third of Croatia’s territory.

It is estimated that some 10,000 people were killed in the fighting. Croatian Serbs subsequently proclaimed their independent state of Krajina.

With international and U.N. mediation, Krajina was put under the UNPROFOR protection under so called ‘Vance Plan’ in March 1992. This the brought the bloodshed to a halt.

“Croatia has always hoped that the U.N. presence will mean a step by step reintegration of the Serbian occupied territories into the republic. While Krajina Serbs saw it as a verification or a kind of guarantee that Croatia will not attack them,” the Belgrade independent daily ‘Borba’ newspaper explained.

“In reality the hopes of the two sides were not met and it only led to the cessation of fighting,” the Borba added.

Most of the political observers here in Belgrade also agree that the status quo in Croatia and the UNPROFOR mandate did not meet some of the basic aims of the original negotiations between all parties concerned in the fighting.

For example local armed forces were not disarmed and refugees did not return to their homes.

Only a small step was made in economic sense, with last December’s opening of the part of Zagreb-Belgrade highway under Krajina control. However, roads and railways, linking Zagreb to its Dalmatian Coast still remain closed for the fifth year in a row.

The United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has urged Croatia to reconsider its order for the United Nations troops to leave its territory, saying he was afraid the withdrawal would lead to war.

Boutros Boutros Ghali’s concern was shared by most of the political leaders and observers in the Belgrade and Krajina stronghold of Knin.

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