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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Serbs Shell Zagreb in Revenge Attack

ZAGREB -- Croatian Serb forces fired rockets into central Zagreb on Wednesday for the second straight day, killing one man and wounding 43 in retaliation for Croatian seizure of a Serb pocket of land in the center of the country.

The attack followed an assault on the Croatian capital Tuesday which killed six people and wounded almost 200.

Violence broke out in Croatia on Monday when Croatian forces launched a major offensive against Western Slavonia, part of the rebel Republic of Serb Krajina which Serbs set up on captured Croatian soil in 1991, and the key Zagreb-Belgrade highway that runs through the region. Croatian troops entered Okucani, a Serb stronghold on the highway, sending Serbs streaming into Bosnia.

Six hundred Serb soldiers surrendered following talks Wednesday in the nearby town of Pakrac and began handing over their heavy weapons to the UN.

UN special envoy Yasushi Akashi later said that rebel Serbs and the Croatian government had agreed to a full cease-fire in the pocket.

The truce accord guaranteed that Serb civilians and soldiers would be allowed to leave the area under UN protection for safety in neighboring Bosnia.

"I have words of honor from both sides to implement the agreement," Akashi said.

The UN envoy made no mention of Croatian withdrawal from the esti mated 500 kilometers of territory taken. A senior Croatian Serb official, Ilija Prijic, insisted the agreement gave the Croats 24 hours to withdraw.

But Croat forces paid a high price for their success. Rebel Serbs fired Orkan-type rockets into Zagreb on Tuesday from 50 kilometers to the south, killing five people and wounding 134. Wednesday's bombardment came as further retaliation.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman warned his forces would strike back if Zagreb were attacked again.

"If such a criminal attack is conducted only once again, Croatia will undertake most decisive steps," he said on national television, trumpeting this week's offensive as a "victory of extraordinary importance."

Croatian authorities said Serb forces fired six rockets armed with cluster bombs that spray lethal shrapnel over a wide area in Wednesday's assault.

One shell crashed through the roof of the 19th-century National Theater building on a busy boulevard and fell into a chamber where the dancers were rehearsing, witnesses said.

State radio and hospitals reported about 20 Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian and British nationals -- some members of the dance troupe -- were among those injured in the attack which began at 12:10 p.m.

A doctor at Merkur hospital said the Briton, Mark Baldwin, would survive shrapnel wounds to his back.

In a courtyard of a children's hospital 150 meters west of the theatre, a police officer was killed while trying to defuse a cluster bomb caught in a tree.

Two rockets also landed on the outskirts of Zagreb, striking 500 meters from a petrochemical plant. One projectile tore a hole in the roof of a house in a nearby village, wounding a woman and her daughter.

"First there was a tremendous flash in the air and then I heard at least two blasts," said Antun Jalsovec, 57, who was operating a bulldozer not far from the chemical factory.

Trams stopped and telephone lines were overloaded by frantic callers in the city of 1 million people. Streets normally clogged with traffic and pedestrians were deserted within minutes.

Police cordoned off the perimeter around the stately National Theater, which was built in 1885 under Austro-Hungarian rule.

"It was definitely a cluster bomb. Quite a few bell-type pallets scattered around. There were at least two shells that crashed here and fragmented," said an eyewitness, Tomislav Horvat, an economist who works across the street.

Croatian army soldiers combed the area for telltale fragments.

In Geneva, international mediators Wednesday invited the Croatian government and the rebel Croatian Serbs to urgent talks to try to shape a permanent accord ending the conflict.

European Union representative Lord Owen told a news conference the invitation was sent to Hrvoje Sarinic, a top Tudjman aide, and to the self-styled president of the Croatian Serbs, Milan Martic.

Owen made clear one of his main aims was to head off any slide into a new war between Croatia and its neighbors in rump Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro. "That is the big one ... the extremely dangerous one," he declared.

He said the talks should start in Geneva at 10 a.m. Friday. "It will be an open agenda with a view to reaching an overall peace settlement," declared Owen, a former British foreign secretary.

"We have had no replies yet but we strongly urge them to seize the opportunity," he said. Owen and fellow mediator Thorvald Stoltenberg of the United Nations were ready to continue the talks "for as long as it takes."

Also invited for the Serbs were their "prime minister" Borislav Mikelic and their "foreign minister" Milan Babic.