Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Analysts: No All-Out War in Croatia

ZAGREB -- Croatia may suffer random rocket strikes after seizing back a rebel Serb enclave but the Serbs' declining strategic situation makes all-out war unlikely.


The Croatian army Tuesday recaptured the breakaway Serb territory of Western Slavonia which straddles a cross-country motorway and railway between Zagreb and eastern Croatia.


It was Zagreb's first significant victory over minority Krajina Serbs who overran almost a third of Croatia in a 1991 uprising against its secession from Yugoslavia, shifting the focus of the war to Bosnia.


But the Serbs have exacted terrifying vengeance, firing 10 long-range rockets into the Croatian capital Tuesday and Wednesday, killing six people and wounding almost 200.


They were unleashed from mobile launchers in another, more entrenched Serb enclave 50 kilometers southwest of Zagreb, well away from the Slavonia region.


Long-range, heavy weapons aimed at Croatian towns are the edge the under-manned Serbs retain over the Croatian army which has been vastly strengthened since 1991.


Analysts say the Krajina Serbs could now declare an open season of terror from the skies against these civilian targets, the beating heart of Croatia's reviving economy.


But the Serbs' loss of isolated Western Slavonia does not menace their enclave as a whole -- its eastern and western pockets are stoutly defended with excellent supply lines and diplomats doubt the Krajina Serbs would want to goad Croatia into a wider war they are ill-equipped to fight.


Croatia calculates the rocket threat will fade, as they predict Slavonia's loss will bolster moderates seeking accommodation with Zagreb over Krajina hardliners who thrive on a state of siege.


U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith said Krajina's moderate prime minister was on his way to Zagreb for talks when the rockets struck, probably on the orders of the ultra nationalist president Milan Martic. Galbraith believed the hardliners could be reined in by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic who is keen to have a punitive UN oil and trade embargo repealed.


"Our feeling is President Milosevic does not wish to see a full-scale war in Croatia. Indeed, the Krajina Serb leadership that undertook these [rocket] attacks is operating very much on its own and therefore very much at its own peril," he said. Mario Nobilo, Croatian ambassador to the United Nations, said Zagreb's offensive was intended only to regain control of the E-70 motorway and no wider war was planned.


The Croatian government, fending off strong Western condemnation of its offensive, issued statements promising equal rights to "Croatian citizens of Serb nationality" in Slavonia.


Nobilo said after Monday's rocket barrage Croatia would not retaliate but if such attacks continued, would consider "surgical strikes" at Serb pockets with rocket batteries.


Western governments have long feared that almost any incident in either Croatia or Bosnia could be the trigger leading to a wider war in the region despite intensive UN mediation.


However, Western Slavonia was inhabited by only 15,000 Serbs and of value simply as a bargaining chip with Croatia.


Significantly, Krajina militia offered little resistance to the Croatian pincer attack from east and west, many fleeing a few kilometers to sanctuary across the Sava river in Serb-held Bosnia.


At the same time, the Bosnian Serbs did not lift a finger to rescue Slavonia from the Croatian tide. They are bogged down against a resurgent Bosnian government army and struggling with acute fuel and manpower shortages.


Croatia can probably avert a international diplomatic backlash if it restrains its soldiers and Croatian refugees from settling scores with Serbs left in Western Slavonia.


But this may be difficult in the flush of a triumph that has been eagerly sought since 1991. However, if normality returns to Slavonia, diplomats say the UN could not impose sanctions on Croatia for acting to reunify its internationally recognised territory.