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Gutted Bosnian City Tells of Croat-Muslim Falling-Out

November 11, 1992|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PROZOR, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Block after block of charred storefronts, shattered windows, bullet-riddled cars and empty streets give the same look of defeat to this Bosnian city as that of numerous other multiethnic communities gutted by rebel Serbs.

But in Prozor's case, and in at least two other central Bosnian cities, the battle was between Muslims and Croats, ostensible allies. The fighting offered evidence of their weakening defense compact and a harbinger of trouble to come.

Only since Croatia's checkerboard flag was raised over Prozor a few days ago have the two ethnic groups taken tentative steps toward reconciliation and rebuilding their commitment to save what is left of Bosnia-Herzegovina from Serbian conquest. Both sides concede their falling-out contributed to last week's collapse of defenses around Jajce, allowing Serbs to advance closer to key strongholds of the Sarajevo-based government such as Travnik and Bugojno.

While Croats and Muslims now profess to have resolved the differences that drove them to train their guns on each other, the frictions that sparked last week's deadly conflicts in Prozor, Vitez and Novi Travnik persist. They could ignite further fighting as the defenders' fortunes flag in their war with the Serbs.

Hasa Kosovac, a Muslim soldier drinking coffee in one of the few Prozor cafes that escaped destruction, said Croatian fighters moved into the city center with tanks and fought local Muslims for 10 days in a show of strength to back demands for control of the local government.

"The fighting stopped about a week ago, when both sides realized the battle was helping the Chetniks take Jajce," Kosovac said of the Serbian forces who launched an offensive while defenders fought among themselves. "We think Jajce fell because our alliance broke."

Some Muslims speculate that Jajce and the northern town of Bosanski Brod were sacrificed by Bosnian Croats in a secret swap designed to firm up both Serbian and Croatian control of the Bosnian territory that each side controls. Serbs opposed to Bosnian independence have conquered almost 70% of the republic since April; Croats claim much of the rest.

Kosovac conceded that such deception by Croatian extremists was possible. But he said that intensified Serbian attacks on the Croatian-held city of Mostar had served as a warning that no deal with Serbian rebels can be counted on. "We are still allied with the Croats," Kosovac insisted, ignoring the surrounding rubble. "Now that they've seen the consequences, I doubt this sort of infighting will occur again."

But along the gutted streets of Prozor there is evidence of growing Croatian militancy. The Croatian flag has been draped over ruins of Muslim businesses. "HDZ"--the initials of the Croatian Democratic Union that rules in Zagreb--has been spray-painted on walls, fences and street signs. In the city center, one of the few occupied buildings has been emblazoned with Ustaski Dom , the name of a social club for nationalist zealots who pattern themselves after Croatia's Nazi-allied fascists known as Ustashe; the Ustashe killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies during World War II.

Indications of collusion between Serbs and Croats to carve up Bosnia between them have been apparent for months. Slavic Muslims' fears of being bargained out of their only Balkan homeland were exacerbated last month when Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic--a prominent writer and nationalist Serb--met behind closed doors in Geneva.

An accord on Serbian withdrawal from the strategic Prevlaka Peninsula was announced after that meeting. The Serb-led Yugoslav army adhered to its terms; shortly thereafter, Croatian defenses withdrew around Bosanski Brod and, more recently, Jajce.

"The talk here is that Jajce fell because reinforcements and ammunition couldn't get through the Croatian checkpoints," said another Muslim in Prozor. "I think it is only quiet here now because the Croats won the battle and now they are in control."

According to local residents, 14 people were killed and hundreds wounded during the 10 days of fighting that ended late last week.

In Vitez, where a British reconnaissance team with the U.N. peacekeeping mission was forced to take cover when it stumbled into the Croatian-Muslim fighting, damage to the city is less widespread and casualties are reported to have been somewhat lighter. But the battle has aroused mutual suspicions, threatening another breakdown of the Croat-Muslim alliance against the Serbs.

"If the Muslims would just listen to the Croats, they would live like kings. But the problem is that they want to create an Islamic fundamentalist state in our country," asserted Tomislav Herakovic, an unemployed Croat who lives in a village near Vitez.

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