ZAGREB (Reuters) - A Croatian newspaper reports that the United States has asked Croatia to accommodate refugees and keep them out of NATO and European Union territory if a flare-up in Serbia’s breakaway Kosovo province provokes a mass exodus.
The daily Jutarnji List said on Thursday Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Daniel P. Fata had broached the issue with a Croatian military delegation in Washington in September.
He asked if Zagreb was ready to “protect NATO’s borders” in the event of a refugee crisis. Croatia’s near neighbors Italy, Slovenia and Hungary are NATO and EU members. Croatia is expected to join NATO next year and the EU some time later.
“The delegation gave a positive answer, saying Croatia already had experience with housing refugees,” the daily said, citing unnamed Croatian sources. “Croatia is expected to monitor its borders and prevent refugees from crossing into the EU.”
Croatian officials were not immediately available for comment and U.S. officials in Zagreb declined to comment.
A troika of mediators from the United States, Russia, and the EU is trying to bridge the gap between Serbia’s offer of autonomy and the Kosovo Albanian majority’s demand for independence, after eight years under U.N. rule.
The United States and a majority of the 27 EU members are prepared to recognize a declaration of independence if Russia continues to block a U.N. resolution, though Germany remains doubtful and half a dozen states are opposed.
The West fears Kosovo’s independence could trigger a chain-reaction, with Serbs in the north seceding to remain part of Serbia and Albanians threatening their enclaves in the south, sending the Serbs fleeing for the border zones.
Over 800,000 Albanians fled or were driven out of Kosovo by Serb forces in 1999, creating a refugee crisis in neighboring Macedonia and Albania. After NATO intervened with a bombing war to expel Serb forces, about 200,000 Serbs fled Kosovo to escape the threat of Albanian revenge attacks.
The United Nations and NATO have made plans in case of a new crisis, which could spill over into neighboring Macedonia and revive an armed Albanian separatist movement there.
However it was not clear why Croatia, which has no border with Kosovo, would become involved. Croatia fought a four-year war of independence with Serbia in the 1990s and is an unlikely destination for fleeing Serbs or Serb refugee resettlement.