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Invading its breakaway Krajina region in an all-out assault, Croatia triggered international protest and stiff resistance from rebel Serbs Friday in what shaped up as the biggest land battle in Europe since World War II.

Attacking with tanks and mechanized vehicles behind artillery barrages, the Croatians reported major gains. The Serbs denied them. The United Nations reported there had been "cautious ground advances" but said it lacked information on which to judge the Croatian claims.Beginning in the late afternoon, air-raid sirens sounded repeatedly in the Croatian capital, sending residents to underground shelters.

There was one unconfirmed report Friday night that a powerful rocket had struck the outskirts of the city.

The United States was among a number of countries recommending that its citizens leave Croatia, where about 1,000 Americans live.

Despite international appeals for restraint, the Croatian advance targeted civilian population centers and lightly armed international peacekeepers, the United Nations charged.

About 100 blue-helmeted peacekeepers had been captured by advancing Croatian troops and their whereabouts was unknown Friday night, U.N. spokesmen said. The missing soldiers included about 70 Poles andsome 15 Canadians, the United Nations said.

One Danish army sergeant was killed and two Polish soldiers were wounded by Croatian tank fire. A Czech command post was strafed by two Croatian jets. Some observation posts were surrounded by mines; communication was lost with more than 100 others, according to Maj. Rita Le Cage, a U.N. military spokesman.

"We do not know where all our soldiers are," said Col. Andrew Leslie, U.N. chief of staff in the rebel capital of Knin.

The orange-roofed city of about 20,000, administrative capital of Serbs who broke away from Croatia in 1991, was a particular target of Croatian fury from the instant the invasion began at dawn Friday.

By late afternoon Friday, Leslie said, more than 1,500 rounds had fallen on the city, inflicting great damage, fires and uncounted civilian casualties. The Canadian colonel reported a "serious loss of life" around Knin.

The United States and the United Nations voiced strong protest at the Croatian lack of restraint, and of its targeting of peacekeepers.

In Washington, President Clinton expressed fears that the new offensive might widen the war in the Balkans and urged the Croatians to "exercise restraint," but he conspicuously did not condemn the action outright.

After an early Friday meeting between Clinton and Anthony Lake, his top national security adviser, the White House sent messages to all the warring sides urging them to return to the bargaining table.

State Department spokesman David Johnson called on the combatants to "respect the safety and rights of civilians, POWs and, especially, (U.N.) peacekeepers."

But both Clinton and Johnson stopped well short of suggesting that the Croatian troops give back any of the territory they have taken. "I think that the language I'd prefer to use is `to urge restraint,' " Johnson said.