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Mediators Weigh Bosnia-Style Plan For Croatia

FRUSTRATED by rebel Serb intransigence in Croatia, international mediators may soon resort to a Bosnia-style peace strategy in the attempt to resolve the standoff on the Serb-held region of Krajina.

``If they don't start negotiating seriously, then they will be told what to do by the international community - a kind of Bosnia situation,'' a United Nations source says.

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UN, United States, and Russian mediators have agreed that absent a ``voluntary'' decision by the rebel Serb leadership to ``discuss the political things very soon ... then the international community will say, `This is the way it is going to be,' '' the source adds.

``This is under active consideration,'' says a Western diplomat, adding that adopting this approach for Croatia ``will depend on how successful it is in Bosnia.''

To break the gridlock in the search for peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the ``contact group'' of US, Russian, French, German, and British mediators earlier this month unveiled its nonnegotiable plan to partition the former Yugoslav republic between the warring factions.

The plan carries rewards for acceptance and punitive actions for a rejection. The Muslim-Croat federation accepted the plan without conditions. But the Bosnian Serbs sought further negotiations. The contact group plans to meet in Geneva on July 30 to prepare a response.

Similar approaches

A similar approach for Croatia would involve incentives and punitive measures, the diplomats say. No decision has yet been made on the nature of the ``carrots and sticks.''

The mediators have made no progress toward a peace accord in Croatia since a March 28 cease-fire. They mostly blame the impasse on the rebel Serbs' refusal to give up the goal of uniting Croatia's Krajina region with the rump Yugoslav union and Bosnia Serb-held territories.

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The rebel Serbs and the Yugoslav Army overran the three areas making up Krajina in the 1991 war ignited by Croatia's secession from former Yugoslavia.

The war subsided into low-intensity fighting after the April 1992 deployment of 14,000 UN peacekeepers inside and along Krajina's boundaries.

A Western diplomat says the mediators have come to recognize flaws in their strategy to restore Croatian authority in Krajina and repatriate some 240,000 Croat refugees.

They have been working on an assumption that a gradual reconciliation could be accomplished by concluding talks on restoring trade, transportation, and communications links that both sides desperately need. The thornier question of Krajina's political status was to be addressed in separate negotiations at a later stage.

But, the sources say, mediators now recognize that economic issues overlap political questions, and they must resolve the relationship between Croatia and Krajina. Keeping economic and political discussions separate has played directly to the Serbs' advantage. Such a process could drag on for years, allowing the 665 miles of UN-delineated front lines to calcify into de facto borders. Some rebel Serb leaders openly acknowledge that this is their intent.

The Serbs are loath to broach the issue of Krajina's status, because they know the international community regards the region as part of Croatia and will never support its secession. The most mediators are likely to agree to is local autonomy for the two Krajina municipalities that had prewar Serbian majorities, something Croatia says it could accept.

Lack of progress

The absence of progress of any kind, meanwhile, is frustrating not only the mediators and their governments. The government of President Franjo Tudjman, which is under enormous pressure from right-wing politicians and refugees to take more drastic measures to recover Krajina, has become furious over what it sees as international inaction.

Mr. Tudjman is threatening not to renew the UN mandate when it expires Sept. 30 unless steps are taken to implement UN resolutions for returning Croat refugees and reintroducing Croatian law in Krajina.

Despite denials to the contrary, UN officials say the government is behind three-week-old blockades of UN checkpoints by refugees that have left UN troops inside Krajina severely short of fuel and food. UN officials say the fuel shortage is crippling their ability to monitor the new cease-fire.

By pushing the Serbs for political negotiations, the mediators could greatly placate Tudjman, sources say.

Yasushi Akashi, special UN representative to former Yugoslavia, is taking other steps to soothe tensions with Zagreb. He announced Thursday that the UN will begin conducting safety surveys in the cease-fire buffer zones as part of a pilot project to begin repatriating Croatian refugees.

But Mr. Akashi is also holding a firm line with Tudjman, enlisting Western powers to help him pressure the Croatian leader to lift the UN checkpoint blockades.

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