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Central Bosnians Savor a Victory : Balkans: Maglaj withstood a two-year Serbian bombardment. Its residents feel they helped turn the tide of the war.

March 29, 1994|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAGLAJ, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Sniper shots from Serbian positions only 100 yards uphill reverberate through the apartment courtyard where Remzo Hodzic tinkers with the bent frame of a bicycle he is salvaging for his grandson. But the smack of bullets puncturing brick and concrete no longer sends Hodzic diving for cover.

Inured to the dangers of war by two years of full-scale bombardment that ceased only a week ago, Maglaj residents are almost oblivious to these last gasps of a failed offensive. The bedraggled people here feel they have scored a symbolic victory over the nationalist rebels who relentlessly attacked this paper mill town but were never able to take it.

Stopped in the tracks of their deadly land grab by the recent reconciliation of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, the overextended, demoralized Serbs have been pushed back from the approaches to Maglaj and forced from the high-water mark of their territorial conquest.

"They wanted Maglaj so they could link up their territories, but they couldn't defeat us," Hodzic said of the Serbs, who pounded Maglaj with hundreds of artillery rounds on most days.

The Serbian drive to take Maglaj, aided for nine months by Croatian nationalist rebels, may go down in the history of this Balkan conflict as Greater Serbia's Waterloo. Exhausted and forced to rely on elderly reservists conscripted from refugee camps, the soldiers of the Serbian expansion drive have had to beat a disgruntled retreat.

The timely rapprochement between Croats and Muslims and U.N. officials' increasing irritation with being used for target practice by the Serbs have converged to halt the rebels. They also have turned international attention toward pushing the Serbs farther back.

Gunmen loyal to Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadzic conquered 70% of Bosnia with their arsenal of tanks, aircraft and howitzers bequeathed by the Yugoslav army. But weapons alone proved insufficient as the rebel ranks were stretched over so much territory and confronted by poorly armed but determined Bosnian government troops fighting to protect their own homes and families.

Hodzic, who along with 11 other family members was expelled from a nearby village by the rebels, lost one son in the defense of Maglaj and saw another crippled by shrapnel. "I have five other sons at the front, and they will stay there as long as they are needed," the 65-year-old patriarch vowed, drawing approving nods from his neighbors. "We want peace, but they will have to continue fighting if we do not get our land back."

Negotiations mediated by the United States and Russia aim to compel Karadzic to relinquish at least one-third of the Bosnian territory his gunmen have conquered in exchange for de facto Western assent to his keeping the rest.

The talks are expected to progress slowly, and Serbian withdrawals, if they occur at all, will probably move at a snail's pace.

But by preventing the rebels from overrunning Maglaj and adding its 100,000 residents and refugees to the 2 million Bosnian displaced, the population here feel they have helped turn the tide of the war; officials of the U.N. Protection Force agree.

Karadzic's gunmen deployed north of Maglaj had been attacking the region for a year when Croatian nationalists eager to take territory for their own separatist state also turned on the Muslim Slavs.

Because the Serbs had better firepower and both rebel factions wanted to divide the Muslims' land, Bosnian Croat troops opened a corridor through Croat-held territory to allow Serbian artillery east, west and south of Maglaj.

That cut off the Muslims and subjected the enclave to a nine-month effort to starve them.

Once Muslim and Croatian militias were compelled to reconcile by a March 1 agreement signed by their leaders in Washington, the Serbian rebels withdrew from Croat-controlled territory in fear of retaliation by the reunited forces.

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