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Rebel Serbs in Croatia Elect Foe of Patrons in Belgrade

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VOTERS in the Serb-held region of Croatia appear to have rejected the long-armed rule of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic by electing a political foe, Milan Babic, as president of the so-called ``Serbian Republic of the Krajina'' (RSK).

The latest unofficial results released Sunday show that, with roughly 70 percent of the votes counted, Mr. Babic - mayor of Knin, the capital of the RSK - won 116,014 votes, or 49 percent of the total. His principal opponent, Milan Martic, running as an independent and backed by Mr. Milosevic, received 25 percent of the vote.

Final results of the ballot, the first to be held in the rebel Serb enclave that declared independence from Croatia, are not yet in. In order to avoid a run-off, Babic needs to win 50 percent of the vote plus one vote.

The message was clear. By overwhelmingly supporting Babic, voters in the RSK opted to continue their support for the overall aim of a Greater Serbia, but want it negotiated on their own terms.

Rumors circulating that Milosevic may want to sacrifice parts of the Krajina in a territorial swap for an overall political settlement in the former Yugoslavia have fueled the anxiety and anti-Belgrade sentiment.

The latest plan for peace in the Balkans pushed forward by the European Union suggests gradually lifting sanctions on Serbia in return for Bosnian Serbs seceding more land to Muslims in eastern Bosnia. Some political analysts suggest Milosevic would rather give up some more barren parts of the Krajina than Bosnian land closer to Serbia proper.

The results were sweet revenge for Babic. After Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in June 1991, he lead the Serb rebellion against Croatia, backed by the Yugoslav National Army, but he was later ousted by Milosevic for opposing the UN-negotiated peace plan that declared a cease-fire in Croatia and allowed 14,000 UN troops to move into Serb-held regions.

The election in the Krajina also flew in the face of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, whose government condemned the vote.

Croatia has offered the Krajina Serbs only ``cultural'' and ``local autonomy'' in two cities in the Serb-held area where Serbs were the majority before the war.

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