BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Extremists in a rebellious Serbian- dominated area of the Croatian Republic convened a self-styled legislature Tuesday that proclaimed a government in a move almost certain to raise tensions threatening to ignite ethnic strife in Yugoslavia.
In its first act, the renegade legislature of the so-called Autonomous Serbian Region of Krajina approved a plan to hold a May 12 referendum to obtain popular support for an April 1 declaration by militant leaders that the area was joining Marxist-ruled Serbia.
The developments came on the third day of a standoff in the same area between Croatian police, who refused to abandon a village station, and tank-backed federal troops demanding that the officers leave in order to prevent clashes between them and Serbian militants.
Seventy representatives elected by 10 municipalities centered on Knin met in the town for the opening session of what was called the Parliament of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Krajina, said a spokesman.
Knin Deputy Mayor Laza Macura said by telephone from Knin that the total number of assembly members would be 91 once three other municipalities in the region selected their 'deputies.'
'This was a solemn session of the assembly,' Macura said.
Tanjug, the Yugoslav national news agency, said the session chose presiding officers and a self-styled government, including a Ministry for National Defense headed by Milan Babic, a dentist and Knin mayor.
In an address to the gathering, Babic endorsed the referendum on uniting with Serbia, calling it the 'first political and legal act of the assembly.'
'The people should express themselves about the already-taken political decision by the regional government,' Babic was quoted by Tanjug as saying.
The 200,000 Serbs in the Knin area, the largest enclave of Croatia's 600,000-strong Serbian minority, last August voted for autonomy, saying their rights and culture were endangered by the nationalist regime of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who ousted Communists in multi-party polls in April 1990.
The republic's Serbs vehemently oppose Tudjman's demand that Yugoslavia be transformed into an 'alliance' of independent states, which would mean the secession of Croatia and the severing of their ties with Serbia.
Their mutiny was encouraged by intense propaganda from Serbia's anti- secession Marxist government that revived memories of atrocities against Serbs by pro-Nazi Croatian extremists during World War II.
Armed Serbian vigilantes and police barricaded approaches to many Serbian-dominated villages in Croatia, hampering road and railway traffic and severely damaging Yugoslavia's tourist industry.
On April 1, Serbian leaders announced they were seceding from Croatia and unilaterally joining Serbia, the largest of Yugoslavia's republics and chief rival of Croatia's nationalist regime. Tudjman's government does not recognize any of the Serbian actions.
Historic rivalries between Yugoslavia's 4.6 million Roman Catholic Croats and 8.5 million Christian Orthodox Serbs, the two major ethnic groups in the federation of 23 million people, have intensified in recent years as their nationalist leaders have fanned ethnic hatreds.
Since last summer, Croatia and Slovenia, the two most liberal republics, have been moving to secede from Yugoslavia, saying Serbia's Communist regime and the federal military leadership, dominated by Serbian generals, are trying to gain political and economic control over the federation.