BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The communist-dominated Yugoslav army placed troops in the secession-minded republics of Croatia and Slovenia at combat readiness, threatening to impose a 'military solution' to a dispute over the future of the multi-ethnic nation, Croatian leaders said Thursday.
The leaders reiterated that they would order their police forces and call on their people to resist the army.
The warnings were accompanied by an announcement that Croatian President Franjo Tudjman canceled a long-awaited Friday meeting in Belgrade with his communist Serbian counterpart, Slobodan Milosevic, at which they were to hold their first-ever negotiations on differences at the heart of the nation's troubles.
'In circumstances in which there is a threatened military solution to the Yugoslav crisis and in which tanks and other units are deployed in a way that is dangerous to the security of the Republic of Croatia, it would be nonsense to go tommorow for talks with ... the Republic of Serbia,' Croatian Prime Minister Josip Manolic said. He did not elaborate.
Speaking to supporters of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, Manolic said: 'The current military leadership definitely has to step down if we wish to continue peacefully toward a solution to the Yugoslav crisis.'
Security in Zagreb and the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana remained high, with special police units equipped with automatic weapons and bullet-proof vests deployed at key buildings, including radio and television stations, to repel any assaults of the kind that have been launched by Soviet troops in the Baltic states.
Concerns of a pending crackdown were reinforced by a statement of the Yugoslav collective presidency, composed mostly of Serbian-aligned communist hard-liners, that seemed to be building a case at least against Croatia, accusing it of reneging on an agreement to turn over 20,000 automatic rifles 'illegally acquired' for its police.
A senior member of the pro-independence government of Slovenia and the Croatian news agency, HINA, said the army was transferring large numbers of ethnic Slovene and Croat soliders out of their native republics to eastern portions of the country.
The reports could not be independently confirmed.
Croatian Foreign Secretary Frane Golem summoned the heads of foreign consulates in Zagreb to ask for their help in the event of an army crackdown.
Diplomats in Belgrade said they were extremely concerned about the situation, their governments already on record with Yugoslav officials as opposing the use of force against Croatia and Slovenia because it could destabilize the entire Balkan country of 23 million.
'It's understood that a number of Western governments have expressed concern not only about the use of force, but also that a move like this could create a state of violence,' said a senior Western diplomat.
Slovenia and Croatia both ousted Communists last April in multi-party elections and began a campaign to convert multi-ethnic Yugoslavia into a confederation of independent states, accusing Marxist-ruled Serbia, the largest of six republics, of seeking political and economic control of the country founded in 1918.
Serbia wants to maintain a federal structure, a position shared by the military and most members of its commander-in-chief, the eight- member federal presidency, both of which are effectively controlled by Serbian Marxists.
The dispute over the future of Yugoslavia has festered for months, fueling ethnic tensions that have combined with a deteriorating economy and a near-total erosion of central power to endanger efforts to transform the country into a Western-style democracy and feed fears of civil war.
The latest trouble began Jan. 9 after the pro-Serbian majority on the presidency issued a vague order for the surrender of weapons by what it said were 'illegal armed units' formed by unnamed political parties along ethnic lines. The deadline passed Monday without incident.
Both Croatia and Slovenia last year enraged the military by importing arms for their police and military reserve contingents. The republics argued that they were within their legal rights and that they were not covered by the disarmament order.
The military Wednesday said it intended to use army courts to prosecute violators of the disarmament order and that the Croatian police groups raised the risk of confrontations, indicating it was possibly planning to arrest members of Tudjman's right-wing nationalist Croatian Democratic Union.
Croatian Defense Secretary Martin Spegelj said that as ofnoon 'the top level of combat readiness has been implemented in the 5th Army District.' The district covers Croatia and Slovenia, with its headquarters in Zagreb.
State-controlled Zagreb Radio said troops in barracks around the town of Karlovac, 30 miles southwest of Zagreb, were placed on 'full alert' and given two days of combat rations.
Meanwhile, in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, Slovenian Defense Secretary Janez Jansa protested what he said were the ongoing transfers of ethnic Slovenian soldiers out of the 5th Military District.
'We demand that these transfers be stopped immediately because transfers of soldiers on the criterion of nationality will have unacceptible consequences for relations between the Republic of Slovenia and the federal government, and especially will sharpen its relations with the Yugoslav Peoples Army,' he said.
He gave no details of how many troops were involved in the movements.