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In Mostar, No Enthusiasm for Bosnia Peace


MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina — A day before Bosnia's warring factions were to meet in Geneva to accept or reject a plan for ending 17 months of civil war, there did not appear Sunday to be much enthusiasm for peace in this city that is one of the main flash points of the conflict.

Spanish U.N. peacekeeping troops remained trapped for the fourth straight night on the east side of Mostar. Muslims were holding them hostage as protection against the Croats, though the Spanish unit announced that it would maintain a permanent military presence on both the Croatian and Muslim sides of the city in an attempt to halt the fighting.

The deadly game of tit for tat that has turned much of the city into rubble, sandbag piles and burned skeletons of buildings continued unabated, three days after the cease-fire that opened the way for the United Nations to enter Mostar on Thursday.

Near one ruined building, a group of Croatian soldiers sat absently playing cards in the dappled afternoon light, cheerfully unmindful of the front line just 50 meters away. There, despite the halfhearted cease-fire, Muslims and Croats were enthusiastically exchanging antiaircraft and small-arms fire, punctuated by the thud and boom of an occasional mortar round. Screeching patrol planes from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization played harmony.

As a group of people approached down an alley, the Croats threw down their cards, rose and screamed a warning: "Snipers!" One of the soldiers lunged at the man heading the group, which had wandered into the deadly path of a sniper's nest. Three people had died in the alley in the previous two days.

Tears of fury welled in the old soldier's eyes as he chastised the unwary approacher. His hand suddenly went for his gun, and it seemed he would shoot the man who had allowed a Muslim sniper a chance to kill him. The other soldiers wrestled him away.

One of the men who died in the alley was the soldier's friend, and his son fell to another sniper's bullet, they explained.

Then the card game began again.

Croatian military leaders tended to grin when asked if this is what a cease-fire is like. Incoming rounds, fired from the Muslim area of eastern Mostar, they described as "provocations." The much more frequent boom of outgoing artillery from Croatian lines was called "response to provocations."

Here, in the heart of what Bosnian Croats hope to make their capital city, there was derision for the Geneva peace plan's proposal to turn warring Mostar into a united city administered by the European Community.

"Everyone is unhappy. Not just soldiers, civilians of this town. They are all humiliated with this decision," said Mostar's 22-year-old Croatian military leader, Zlatan Jelic, a young hero from Croatia's war of independence who is commanding the defense of the Bosnian Croats' most important city--a city whose present level of violence can be attributed to the fact that it is also home to 55,000 Muslims who don't see themselves living in the capital of a Croatian republic.

"Mostar was, it is, and it will always be a Croatian town, until the last Croat alive in Mostar," Jelic said.

Throughout Bosnia on Sunday, there was similar jockeying among the nation's warring Serbian, Croatian and Muslim factions. Each side intended to leave the Geneva talks with a better deal than the current plan that would award Serbs 52% of the territory, Muslims 30% and Croats 18%.

Only the Serbs unconditionally accepted the plan, though Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said that lifting international sanctions against Serbia has to be "an integral part of the implementation of the peace process."

Bosnia's Muslim-led government said it will go back to Geneva, where the talks reconvene today, to try to get more land. And it will also insist on Security Council guarantees for implementing the plan and pledges of either political or military backing from NATO and the United States.

In Mostar, the scene of some of the most furious fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina since last spring, just how far the peace process has to go to end the fighting was only too clear.

"Mostar is not only about a city under siege. It is also about a city that is in many ways a gateway to central Bosnia, which is the most unstable and dangerous and fought-over area in Bosnia," said Cedric Thornberry, the U.N. official who is attempting to negotiate a new cease-fire in Mostar.

But the city has proved to be a dilemma. On the Muslim side, much of the 175 tons of relief supplies delivered by the U.N. convoy, whose aid trucks and drivers were released only Saturday, has remained untouched, raising questions about assertions that the population was in danger of starvation. But there can be little doubt about the level of fear the Muslim population has felt at the punishing Croatian shelling assaults.

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