By Sven Milekic
Croatia’s Defence Minister Damir Krsticevic offered his resignation over criticism that the military didn’t react quickly enough to tackle huge wildfires, but the prime minister refused to accept it or blame the army.
While visiting fire-affected areas near the Croatian coastal city of Split on Tuesday, Croatian Defence Minister and Vice Prime Minister Damir Krsticevic offered his resignation over the military’s allegedly slow reaction to the blazes on the coast, Jutarnji list newspaper reported.
His offer of resignation followed criticism by the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, who said during her official visit to Austria on Tuesday that “the military could have come out earlier” to help put out the forest wildfires that seriously endangered Split on Monday evening.
Grabar Kitarovic added that although troops are not specially trained to put out fires, the military could have assisted the firemen who have been fighting fires along the coast since the weekend.
However, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic told an urgent press conference on Tuesday afternoon that he refused to accept the resignation, insisting that Krsticevic and the military had done nothing wrong.
Plenkovic added that he had talked with Krsticevic, telling him “to calm down”.
Plenkovic said that wildfires are “interesting for the media” as it is uncommon for wildfires to spread to Split, but pointed out that only 16 people have been seen by doctors after inhaling smoke from the blazes, while one person died because of an existing heart condition.
He also said that it was “not clear” to him “according to which information” the president stated that the military’s reaction came too late.
Before offering his resignation on Tuesday, Krsticevic had claimed that that the military reacted promptly when asked to step in.
He also insisted that the army acted according to procedure.
“We came among the first. You know what kind of system it is. The system is such that we [the military] react when we are called. I can’t influence when that local commander will make that decision,” hetold Croatian Radio-Television, HRT.
Minutes later however, Jutarnji list reported that he had offered to resign.
Although Krsticevic’s offer to step down came after the president’s criticism, Grabar Kitarovic told Jutarnji list that she was “surprised” by the minister’s apparent resignation, calling it “absolutely unacceptable”.
“He is an excellent minister and doing his job very well, and therefore can’t be held responsible for what has happened,” Grabar Kitarovic said.
“The military can’t go into the field by itself, it must be called. And in this situation, those who have misjudged the situation in the field and have called on the military for help too late are the ones responsible… The military has done a very good job in the end,” she added.
Before Krsticevic’s offer to step down, Plenkovic also visited the fire-hit areas and thanked the Defence Minister, Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic and Split mayor Andro Krstulovic Opara for “the engagement they have invested” in addressing the problem.
“The system works very well, everyone is engaged, making great efforts,” he said, adding that “the system reacted exactly how it should have reacted”.
“As soon as the Croatian Army and the Defence Minister received a notice to assist in defence of the rocket base in Zrnovnica [a suburb of Split], [Krsticevic] activated the military, which reacted quickly. All who were needed reacted,” Plenkovic insisted.
The situation on the coast was much improved on Tuesday, although fires were still burning in the Split suburbs of Podstrana, Srinjine and Zrnovica.
But although firefighters have managed to protect almost all the houses in these areas, a stronger south-easterly wind could still cause additional problems.