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Balkans: Yugoslav-Croatian Border Incident Shows Improved Cooperation

  • Jolyon Naegele

A shooting incident on the Danube River border between Yugoslavia and Croatia yesterday upset Croatian leaders and focused renewed attention on a river island claimed by both states. As RFE/RL reports, Yugoslav soldiers yesterday fired shots toward several boats in the Danube that were carrying local dignitaries and civilians from Croatia and Serbia, but officials in both states moved quickly to resolve the dispute.

Prague, 29 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Croatian news media are describing this as the most serious incident since the end of 4 1/2 years of hostilities between Croatia and Yugoslavia in 1995.

A governor and several mayors from Croatian and Yugoslav Danube River towns were among the more than 20 adults and four children aboard at least four boats when a Yugoslav naval vessel unleashed several rounds of machine-gun fire into the water. The boats were headed to the Danube's disputed Sarengrad Island.

When a Croatian border patrol boat approached the area of the incident, it, too, came under machine-gun fire from the Yugoslav patrol boat.

The Croatian and Yugoslav dignitaries intended to visit the island as a confidence-building measure to see pasture grounds that have been off-limits to citizens of Croatia since 1991. However, judging by Yugoslav statements after the incident, someone neglected to inform the Yugoslav military through the correct channels in advance of the outing.

What made this incident different from previous border disputes was the speed with which Yugoslav and Croatian leaders met in a bid to resolve their differences. Within hours of the shooting, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic had apologized by telephone to Croatia's Prime Minister Ivica Racan.

Racan, however, told Croat TV viewers that that was insufficient, and he demanded a public apology: "We will want a very precise explanation of what happened."

Later the same day -- just six hours after the shooting -- Racan met with Svilanovic at a Danube River bridge border crossing near Sarengrad, but was still angry. "Shooting near civilians, even if it was shooting in the air or in the water, is simply unacceptable." He said shooting at civilians is "detrimental to good neighborly relations," and called on Yugoslavia to give Croatia the results of its investigation into the incident.

Racan said, "People from both sides of the Danube have to live in peace and cooperate in mutual interest."

Meanwhile, Croatia's Foreign Ministry summoned the Yugoslav ambassador in Zagreb to receive a harsh note of protest, but Ambassador Milan Simurdic refused to accept it.

Nevertheless, his boss, Svilanovic, expressed regret over the incident, laying the blame on poor communication. He said that, apparently, not all police and military units were aware of the local authorities' plans to visit Sarengrad. "I said I was sorry because we want all Croatian citizens in Yugoslavia and Serbian citizens in Croatia to feel secure. A good intention turned out badly."

Svilanovic insisted that the soldiers had only fired warning shots in the air. He reiterated that no one had been hurt and said he hopes the incident will not mar relations between Yugoslavia and Croatia.