Christopher Bennett reporting from Yugoslavia unmasks the spurious reasoning behind Serbia's conquest of Croatia and describes the brutality of a war based on atavistic hatred
AS fighting escalates throughout Croatia, Yugoslavia's breakaway republic, Serbian rebels and the federal army are deliberately firing on civilians, indiscriminately destroying property and viciously targeting Catholic churches. Nevertheless the European Community, the conflict's self-appointed arbiter, is reluctant to admit this is civil war and fiddles pathetically while Yugoslavia burns.
In Petrinje, just 30 miles south of the Croatian capital Zagreb but already the front line, the town's church is fortunate still to be standing. Gaping holes in its facade arc the legacy of half a dozen tank shells fired from a distance of less than fifty yards.
Federal army tanks left their barracks, drove to the centre of Petrinje and began shelling the town indiscriminately. Not one building on the main street was spared. Now Petrinje is almost a ghost town, its population either having fled or mobilised into the Croatian Guard.
Physical destruction all over Croatia is massive. It surpasses even that of World War II because today's means of destruction are that much greater. The economic consequences of the fighting will haunt the republic for decades to come. The psychological scars may never heal.
Many Croatian villages have been pounded by mortar fire every night for the last two months. Though most children have been evacuated from the crisis areas into refugee centres the experience will affect them for years to come. All killing is horrific, but in Yugoslavia it is especially brutal fuelled as it is by an irrational, atavistic hatred.
In the village of Cetekovac in Western Slavonia Serbian rebels slaughtered 22 Croats after the ammunition of the Croatian defenders ran out. First they shot them in the legs to prevent them escaping and then they hacked them to death with knives. Six of the Croats were pensioners.
Casualties from the fighting are huge. NINA, the Croatian news agency, estimates more than 2,000 people have lost their lives and another 120,000 have abandoned their homes. Furthermore the outlook is even more depressing as no cease-fire resolution to date has been worth the paper it was written on. Croatia is steadily being conquered. Its hastily formed army, the Croatian Guard, is acutely short of weapons and suffers heavy casualties every day.
Unlike Slovenia, Yugoslavia's northern republic which successfully challenged the might of the federal army, Croatia is militarily weak. Its territorial army was completely disarmed 16 months ago while communists were still in power. The international arms embargo on Yugoslavia hits only Croatia as the country's defence industries arc concentrated in Serbia.
Arming Croatia is no solution. Had Croatia sufficient weapons the population would already be mobilised and a full scale war under way. However the potential for tragedy is so great the world dare not stand idly by.
The European Community has at least correctly identified the aggressor. However, by demanding a cease-fire as a precondition for a peace conference, the EC is playing directly into Serbia's, and its communist president Slobodan Milosevic's hands. From Mr Milosevic's point of view the war could not be going better. His forces already control more than a quarter of Croatia and he can block any peace conference by not respecting the cease-fire.
The fighting has little to do with the rights of Serbs in Croatia though Mr Milosevic rages about little else. It is simply a battle for Mr Milosevic's own political future. Peace and Serbia's imminent economic collapse would destroy him within a n.atter of months.
Croatia's Serbs, supposedly under threat from the nationalist Croatian government, are being cynically manipulated. Backed by the federal army they stand poised to conquer the whole of Slavonia, which, though overwhelmingly Croatian, is a valuable prize being Yugoslavia's breadbasket.
No matter how much of rural Croatia Serbia conquers the question of Serbs in Croatia will remained unresolved since the greatest number live in cities, especally in Zagreb. These Serbs have no time for Belgrade's Greater Serbian fantasies and many have volunteered for the Croatian Guard.
This is not simply an ethnic conflict since all of Croatia's peoples, including Serbs, Moslems and Hungarians, are defending their republic together. This is a genuine civil war.
The Serbs of Croatia may have legitimately been upset by the nationalist government's early flag-waving policies, considering Croatia's rather unsavoury history, but they did not actually feel threatened.
As unsubtle as the Croatian Democratic Union's leading politicians are they could do the . Mothers' protest: Yugoslavia's• women have been in the forefront of anti-war demonstrations Serbs no harm due to the lack of means.
It is blatantly clear that Serbian rights in Croatia are no longer the issue. The federal army is laying waste to Croatian towns and shooting with all its might into civilian areas. The towns of Osijek and Vinkovci have been mercilessly pounded from land and air. Even the navy has turned its guns on Vukovar, a town on the river Danube.
The imbalance in fire power between the two sides is terrifying.
If the European and the international community stand off any longer, refusing to take sides, they will be seen as condoning the slaughter.
Recognising Slovenia, Croatia and any other Yugoslav republic which wishes to leave the federation as independent states is a minimal first step. This, coupled with economic and political sanctions against Serbia would show Belgrade that the world will not tolerate its brutality.
As the Soviet Union's republics break away the recognition of Yugoslavia's republics becomes easier. This move is imperative as more innocent civilians get killed. The federal army has by its actions forever forfeited its right to defend Yugoslavia. Recognition would not automatically restore peace to the Balkans. However it would certainly strengthen the position of Mr Milosevic's Serbian opposition. And it would give heart to those whose homes and lives have already been wrecked.
Yugoslavia as a unitary state has no future. The territory of Yugoslavia is in for a bloody couple of years whatever the international community decides.
However, if the European Community both fails to stop tb.. war and refuses to recognise Croatia it becomes an accomplice to the tragedy. If the EC truly has no power to intervene it should come to terms with this reality and hand over the initiative to another body. The stakes are too high for procrastination.