Tue, Nov 16, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Croatian leader pays historic first visit to Belgrade

DPA , BELGRADE

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader arrived in Belgrade yesterday, in a first visit by a Croatian head of government since Zagreb won independence from the former Yugoslavia in a bloody war.

Sanader was scheduled to meet the president of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and other officials.

Relations between Belgrade and Zagreb thawed over the past few years, but some painful issues remained unresolved. Sanader said that he would push Belgrade officials to reveal the fate of 1,200 Croats who went missing during the 1991-1995 war.

"I will demand more and better work on that issue from my counterparts and I know they will respond positively," Sanader said on Sunday in Zagreb.

Kostunica's advisor Slobodan Samardzic said that developing economic ties would top the agenda, as it would also create the framework to resolve the problem of tens of thousands of Serbs who fled Croatia at the end of the war.

"Individual problems will be solved more easily ... if we create a context of normal relations," he told the radio B92.

Croatia was a part of the former Yugoslavia until it declared independence in mid-1991, shortly after another ex-Yugoslav republic, Slovenia. Bosnia became embroiled in war a year later.

The move triggered a short war in Slovenia and a much bloodier conflict in Croatia, where the Serb minority, backed by Belgrade and its army, immediately declared a "state" covering about a third of Croatia.

Zagreb broke the resistance of the Serbs in the summer of 1995, following four years of on-and-off fighting that was often marked by atrocities targeting civilians.

The final Croat offensive drove hundreds of thousands of Serbs from their homes.

Zagreb and Belgrade established diplomatic ties after the war ended, but relations remained virtually frozen until the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade four years ago.

However, no top Croatian official has visited Belgrade until President Stjepan Mesic in September last year.

They exchanged apologies, for "all evil committed in the name of Serbia and Montenegro [Yugoslavia] to anyone in Croatia," and to "all who were at any time violated by citizens of Croatia," and pledged to push the relations forward.

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