The government of the separatist republic of Croatia acknowledged today that it had lost the three-month battle for this Danube River town, suffering its most significant defeat in more than four months of fighting against the Serbian-led Yugoslav Army and Serbian irregulars.
As holdout Croatian forces continued to defend some pockets of the besieged town, Croatian officials offered an orderly surrender on condition that the army guarantee the safety of thousands of civilians huddled in cellars beneath Vukovar's ruins.
"The biggest part of the town is in army hands," said Kresimir Macan, a Croatian government spokesman. "There cannot be any military way now for Croatia to save Vukovar. We are just trying to save civilians."
The army offered no immediate response to the surrender proposal. A Strategic Setback
The loss of Vukovar, a town the Croats had vowed never to surrender, deals not only a severe blow to Croatian morale but an important strategic setback to Croatian efforts to withstand Serbian advances in the eastern region of the republic called Slavonia. Control of the town will give the Serbs control of an overland corridor from Serbia to a cluster of Serb-controlled villages in the area of Croatia north of the town, leaving the city of Osijek, the main Croatian stronghold, particularly vulnerable. Croatia will also lose access to the Danube River.
The European Community tonight volunteered to send cease-fire monitors to Vukovar to supervise the town's surrender, said Renilde Steeghs, a community spokesman in Croatia's capital, Zagreb. "It is in all the parties' interests to have an impartial witness present during the takeover," he said.
Croatia's government has threatened to retaliate if members of irregular Serb militia carry out reprisal attacks on civilians in Vukovar. "We warn the army command of their responsibility for the lives of the innocent civilians in Vukovar and of the danger that if they are not saved, no one will guarantee the safety of Yugoslav Army officers and soldiers on Croatian territory," a government statement said.
The national army and Serbian militia fighters have captured almost all of the town after recent days of intensified fighting.
Fighting continued in Vukovar today despite a cease-fire that was to have begun on Saturday evening. A European Community spokesman said any improvement of the army's position would be a cease-fire violation. 3,000 Killed in Civil War
Croatia as been torn by civil war since it declared independence on June 25. About 3,000 people have been killed, and Serbian-led forces have captured about a third of the republic's territory.
Serbia, the largest of Yugoslavia's republics, claims that Croatia's 600,000 ethnic Serbs would be persecuted if the republic became independent. Croatia maintains that Serbia is using the issue as a pretext to seize territory as Yugoslavia breaks apart.
Today army artillery ground away all day at Croatian forces holed up in a small pocket around a gutted water tower in Vukovar's center. Yugoslav Army infantrymen advanced house by house, rousting civilians from their basement shelters and flushing out Croatian soldiers hiding among the rubble. 10,000 Still in City
Before the fighting began, Vukovar had a population of roughly 40,000, with Croats outnumbering Serbs 43 percent to 37 percent. Today, with the city largely in ruins, about 10,000 people, including 2,000 children and 500 wounded, are reported to be still under cover in Vukovar. Food is in short supply, and doctors in the town's hospital have reportedly been operating on patients without anesthetics.