BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The Marxist-dominated Yugoslav presidency Tuesday dismissed as 'unfounded' fears of an army crackdown on the secession-minded Croatian and Slovenian republics and authorized military courts to prosecute violators of an order to surrender illegal arms.
The collective head of state remained vague about the targets of its decision, but Vice President Stipe Mesic, the Croatian representative on the presidency, said it applied only 'to individuals' and that 'there will be no movement of the Yugoslav army.'
'The ultimatum will now be applied to individuals, and not to paramilitary organs belonging to the republics,' Mesic said on returning to the Croatian capital of Zagreb after an emergency presidency session in Belgrade.
His comments indicated that the army and the presidency, both dominated by Communists from Serbia, largest of Yugoslavia's six republics, were forced to accept the refusals of Croatia and Slovenia to hand over arms they imported last year for their police and military reserve forces.
The presidency's Jan. 9 order for the surrender of illegal arms had intensified the ethnic and political tensions threatening civil war in the Yugoslav federation of 23 million people of six main ethnic groups and three major religions.
Croatian and Slovenian leaders reiterated after a meeting on the crisis in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana their intentions to secede from Yugoslavia and charged that the disarmament order represented interference by the army, whose officers, like the pro-Serbian majority of the presidency's eight members, oppose breakup of the country.
Despite the assurance by the presidency, the Croatian and Slovenian leaders said in a statement that the 'Yugoslav People's Army has introduced the highest level of readiness in some of its units, is transferring individual special units with heavy weaponry and also shows intentions to take over some functions of state organs.'
It said the leaders assessed 'those activities as obvious political and military pressure, which leads toward direct interference of the Yugoslav People's Army in solving a political crisis with the use of military power.'
The presidency met in emergency session 12 hours after the expiration of a midnight Monday deadline for the surrender of weapons to the military by what it had charged were 'illegal paramilitary units' formed by unnamed political parties along ethnic lines.
A statement issued after the meeting said the body heard a Defense Ministry report that the directive was 'only partially carried out.'
'The state presidency therefore noted that military courts and all other competent organs are obliged to carry out their obligations and powers fixed by law,' the statement continued.
Under the Yugoslav Constitution, the Communist-commanded military has the authority to prosecute civilians within its court system on matters in which it is involved.
The presidency sought to downplay fears that the army would use the order to justify crackdowns against the Croatian and Slovenian governments, controlled by nationalist parties that began moving the republics toward independence after ousting Communists last April in Yugoslavia's first free elections since the end of World War II in 1945.
'The state presidency noted that any spreading of a psychosis of fear over an alleged intervention by the Yugoslav People's Army is unfounded and that the creation of anti-army sentiment is unacceptable,' the statement said.
Concerns of a crackdown stemmed from the importation of weapons by Croatia and Slovenia for their police and military reserve forces in defiance of the army. They claimed they were within their legal rights and had been spurned by Yugoslavia's only small arms factory, which is controlled by Serbia's ruling Communists.
In addition, Slovenia's ruling United Democratic Coalition last summer assumed command of the republic's military reserve force and has been accelerating moves to secede, buoyed by a Dec. 23 plebiscite on independence.
Croatia and Slovenia want Yugoslavia converted into a confederation of independent states because of concerns over domination by Serbia. Serbia says it will only accept confederation if the country's internal borders are realigned so that all 8.5 million Serbs live in a single state.
About 2 million Serbs reside outside Serbia, mostly in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, and redrawing internal borders would almost certainly trigger civil war.