ZAGREB, Yugoslavia -- As Serbia and Croatia appear to back away from a conflict over Yugoslavia's future, Croatia has begun training a special "anti-terrorist" police force that could become the front-line troops should the Serbo-Croatian dispute lead to civil war.
Croatia and Slovenia are the chief regions pressing for Yugoslavia to become a confederation of independent republics, while Serbs -- who make up the largest minority of Yugoslavs -- would like to keep the federal structure that grants Belgrade authority over the entire country.
Yesterday, the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, lowered the tension level when he met with the leader of Montenegro to prepare for tomorrow's conference among presidents of Yugoslavia's six republics -- the first step toward negotiating an agreement on Yugoslavia's future political structure.
Mario Nobilo, spokesman for Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, said the meeting could produce important first steps toward an agreement.
Mr. Milosevic, who is president of both Serbia and Yugoslavia secretly met with Mr. Tudjman on Monday.
"I wouldn't say anything spectacular, but a start at least," Mr. Nobilo said.
But Croatia has been arming itself and training paramilitary police units, in the event negotiations fail to find a peaceful way to a future political structure for Yugoslavia.
Such forces in Croatia and Slovenia, the two republics that announced secession last month, reportedly total 34,000 men.
Officially, Croatia does not have an army. Croatian officials sa the group of 100 or so 20-year-olds being trained at Mount Sljeme is an anti-terrorist force.
But the commander of the force, who did not want to be identified, named the regions of Croatia where Serbs are concentrated as the most prone to terrorist attack.
Martin Spegelj, Croatia's defense minister, nearly touched off civil war here last month, when Serbian officials accused him of importing arms from Hungary. Tensions abated only when Croatia agreed to disarm the units.
The Serbian authorities also demanded Mr. Spegelj's arrest for allegedly plotting to assassinate Serbian officers and their families should the army intervene in Croatia.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Spegelj did not deny the charges against him but said that he was covered by government immunity and that Croatia would ask that the charges be dropped.