U.S. Gives Croatians Tacit Attack Support

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration has given Croatia tacit approval to attack separatist Croatian Serbs, gambling on the fact that a Croatian offensive would not pull neighboring Serbia into a much wider war but would help relieve Serb pressure on the Bosnian Moslem enclave of Bihac, U.S. officials say.

As 100,000 Croatian government troops and 50,000 Croatian Serb troops were reported by UN officials to be "fully mobilized and battle ready,'' White House spokesman Mike McCurry said U.S. officials meeting with Croatian leaders in Zagreb urged them to show restraint and avoid civilian casualties -- but pointedly did not warn them against attacking.

U.S. officials acknowledged they are, in essence, hoping to use Croatia to quash advances by Bosnian and Croatian Serbs against Bihac, which is in Bosnia on the Croatian border. The United States has actively cultivated good relations with Croatia to bolster it and offset Serbian influence.

"We haven't given them [the Croatian government] a green light,'' said a State Department official, "but we're not in a position to send a significant force to Bihac to resolve the fighting, so the thinking is maybe it's not a bad option to let Croatia go in there and handle it.''

Another administration official said the United States had given Croatia an "amber light, proceed with caution.''

McCurry said the United States simply urged that Croatian "forces exercise the utmost restraint, that they seek to minimize civilian casualties as they conduct their operations ... that they respect the human rights of the civilian population and ensure the safety of United Nations personnel in the area."

The fear, administration officials said, is that the Croatians may engage in their own round of "ethnic cleansing," or violence directed against an ethnic group, precisely the activity that has drawn the Bosnian Serbs condemnation from around the world.

The area of Croatia in dispute is a boomerang-shaped swath of Croatia held by separatist Serbs, called Krajina Serbs, who have lived there for hundreds of years and broke away from the government after a six-month civil war in 1991.

The Krajina region is right next to Bihac, a UN-declared "safe area" in western Bosnia that has recently come under attack by the six different factions fighting there, including Bosnian Serbs.

While this week NATO was empowered to conduct massive air strikes against troops attacking Bihac, it is a scenario the Western allies would like to avoid, given the tricky geography and risks of hurting civilians and non-belligerents.

The risk of a Croatian offensive, however, is that it would draw Serbia into war to protect its fellow Serbs in Croatia. But Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has so far reacted coolly to appeals for help in the face of the Croatian buildup, and has called on the warring sides to make peace.