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The Serb soldiers in this town are confident they can defend it. But as diplomats mull the partition of Bosnia at the negotiating table Tuesday, many here are asking themselves what they're fighting for.

About 10 days ago, soldiers with the Mrkonjic Grad brigade fled as Croat forces sweeping through western Bosnia advanced on the town.But when the Serb fighters saw the Croats hesitate, they returned to defend their hometown.

"Almost all our soldiers came back and we prevented Croats from entering the town," said Maj. Radovan Ilic, the Mrkonjic Grad brigade commander.

"We are still within the range of their (Croat) 120-mm mortars and until we push them further, the town is not safe for civilians," Ilic said.

Bosnian Croat forces, backed by the Croatian army and n conjunction with the Muslim-led Bosnian government army, have swept rebel Serbs from large sections of western and central Bosnia in recent weeks.

Their swift advances sparked speculation that the Serbs may have staged strategic withdrawals, preferring to lose on the battlefield what they probably would have to give up under a U.S.-sponsored peace plan under consideration by the warring sides.

Soldiers in Mrkonjic Grad were willing to defend their hometown but were asking themselves why. They did not hide their disappointment at watching the Serb dream of a "Greater Serbia" fade.

Both sides agreed at talks in Geneva on Sept. 8 to an ethnic division that would give the Muslim-Croat alliance 51 percent and the Serbs 49 percent. At the time, Serb acceptance of that percentage was considered key as the Serbs had captured nearly 70 percent of Bosnia since April 1992.

However, the Serbs have suffered stunning battlefield losses since NATO warplanes bombed their positions as pun-ish-ment for attacks on the Sarajevo safe area. U.N. officials have said the Serbs have made "tactical withdrawals" in other areas they were likely to lose in a peace deal.

Meanwhile in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and other Republicans are criticizing the Clinton administration for agreeing to send ground troops to Bosnia without discussing it with Congress. But the White House says the GOP complaints are groundless.

"There's been almost constant contact with this Congress," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said, citing a nine-page list of consultations over the past year.

Administration officials have said up to 25,000 U.S. troops would be sent once a peace accord is reached, with an equal number of troops expected from other countries.