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A Tiny and Explosive Chunk of the Balkans Tests US Peace Deal

NATO is meeting with swift success in taking over the UN mission in the former Yugoslavia. But a rift between the US and the UN over an agreement to reintegrate Eastern Slavonia into Croatia is threatening to stall the process.

The dispute is fueling concerns among United Nations officials that Croatia might make good on previous threats to retake by force the last pocket of its territory under Serb control.

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Such a Croatian assault, UN officials warn, could have a disastrous impact in Bosnia because it might reignite fighting there between Serbs and Croats, unhinging the Nov. 21 peace accord brokered by the United States and endangering NATO troops, including American units, being deployed to enforce it.

Rebel Serb leaders signed an agreement to relinquish control of Eastern Slavonia, an oil- and agriculture-rich region their forces captured in 1991 on Nov. 12, paving the way for Serbian acceptance of the Bosnia peace agreement nine days later.

Brokered by the US and the UN, the accord calls for an international administration to govern Eastern Slavonia during a one- to two-year transition to Croatia's control. A multinational military force would disarm and protect the estimated 100,000 Serb residents and refugees living there and oversee the return of some 75,000 Croats expelled from the area.

The accord, however, left the composition and command of the force unspecified. Citing the failure of previous peace deals, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recommended in a Dec. 12 report that a "robust" multinational contingent of 9,300 combat troops and 2,000 logistics personnel backed by tanks and aircraft replace the 1,600 lightly armed Russian and Belgian UN peacekeepers now deployed in Eastern Slavonia. He said it should be attached to NATO's Implementation Force in Bosnia.

The US opposed the recommendation and called for the continued deployment of UN peacekeepers. France and Britain declined to contribute any soldiers.

The dispute took on personal overtones when US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright criticized Mr. Boutros-Ghali's recommendations.

"I believe it is misguided and counterproductive to argue that the UN should avoid this operation because of the risk of exacerbating a negative image of UN activities in the former Yugoslavia," Mrs. Albright said. In a brittle response before the Security Council on Dec. 15, Boutros-Ghali condemned Ms. Albright's statement as "vulgar."

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UN officials remain deeply indignant over the US position. They attribute it to a desire by the Clinton administration to limit the American engagement here.

Clearly referring to the US, Boutros-Ghali last Thursday told reporters during a visit to Kuwait that "They want to give the difficult operations to the UN."

No resolution appears close. A senior UN official in Zagreb pointed out that no countries have volunteered troops to the UN force in Eastern Slavonia, and those now there cannot provide the security needed.

"We've got to get 3,500 to 7,500 troops right now on the ground," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But, for any troop-contributing nation, it is now more politically acceptable to have troops in Bosnia."

*Check out the Monitor's Bosnia page on the World Wide Web of the Internet:

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