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West Winks at Milosevic's Move

SERBIAN President Slobodan Milosevic's dreams of a "Greater Serbia" appear to live on, Western officials say.

President Milosevic, a figure United States diplomats are desperately courting as a new Balkan peacemaker, is again sending aid to rebel Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia.

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He recently sent new tanks and a top army general, Mile Mrksic, to command Serb forces in the Serb-held Krajina region of Croatia.

New military aid from Milosevic also resulted in a sharp improvement in the Bosnian Serb air-defense system that led to the shooting down of US F-16 pilot Scott O'Grady in June.

"There appears to be an improvement in the radar links," says a Western official. "I don't think Belgrade gave the order to shoot down the plane, but it improved the system enough to make it capable of doing that."

But the new aid is one of the most telling examples yet that a new Western diplomatic strategy relying on Milosevic is deeply flawed because he still hopes to form a "Greater Serbia," Western officials say.

"[General] Mrksic was hand-picked by Milosevic," says a senior Western official. "This is not a [Croatian Serb] figure. This is a Yugoslav Army officer responsible for one of the worst war crimes of the conflict."

In meetings this spring, US envoy to the former Yugoslavia Charles Frasure tried to get Milosevic to agree to recognize Bosnia's Muslim-led government in exchange for having punishing economic sanctions lifted.

"The only thing that amazes me is that Milosevic hasn't accepted," says the senior Western official. "At some point when you get exactly what you want, you should say yes."

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Western efforts to court Milosevic are continuing. European Union mediator Carl Bildt is shuttling throughout the region, and the UN Security Council is scheduled to vote on whether to extend a temporary lifting of economic sanctions against Serbia on July 5.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, meanwhile, is refusing to negotiate with hard-line Croatian Serb leader Milan Martic and interprets Mrksic's arrival as a signal that a negotiated reintegration of Serb-held territories will not be possible. "There's no question in my mind [the Croats] intend to move militarily," says the senior Western official.

BY choosing Mrksic, Milosevic appears to be sending a chilling message to the Croatian government. Mrksic commanded one of the lead Yugoslav Army armor units that leveled the Croatian-held city of Vukovar in eastern Croatia in a brutal 1991 siege.

As many as 3,000 civilians died in the attack, and the shelling of civilians is considered a war crime under international law.

After Vukovar, Mrksic was promoted to head of the Yugoslav Army Special Forces, and is believed to have commanded Special Forces units that crossed into Bosnia and aided a Serb offensive against the Muslim-held enclave of Gorazde last spring.

Western officials believe the salaries of Mrksic, who until his May 18 Krajina appointment was the assistant chief of the Yugoslav Army General Staff, and the salaries of hundreds of officers who have followed him, are still being paid by Serbia.

Maj. Veselin Sljivancanin, who is believed to be with Mrksic in the Krajina, reportedly committed one of the Vukovar campaign's worst war crimes, officials say. Major Slijivancanin, who was Mrksic's deputy at the time, blocked UN envoy Cyrus Vance and International Red Cross doctors from entering the city's main hospital, while dozens of patients were smuggled out the back door by Serb forces. The patients reportedly were later executed.

But Western officials believe Milosevic is hedging his bets and not giving the Croatian Serbs all the military aid they need. Milosevic may be willing to sacrifice the Krajina - about 30 percent of Croatia held by rebel Serbs far from Serbia proper.

Milosevic's real goal, officials say, is to annex a chunk of eastern Croatia currently held by rebel Croatian Serbs called Eastern Slavonia.

The area borders Serbia, has large oil reserves, excellent farm land, and gives Serbia control of the Danube river.

If Croatia retakes the Krajina, more than 200,000 Serbs living there could be resettled in Eastern Slavonia as other Serbs have been, and Serb control of the area would be a fait accompli.

But Western officials say Serbia's new military aid will have little effect on efforts to court Milosevic. "I think Milosevic will be interpreted by the West," says one official, "in whatever light the West wants to interpret him."

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