SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnian government troops swept through the northwestern town of Velika Kladusa on Sunday, crushing the revolt of Muslim renegade Fikret Abdic and apparently driving him into exile.
The victory after nearly a year of Muslim-against-Muslim fighting in what is known as the Bihac pocket concludes a divisive and debilitating internal conflict and could signify a turning point in the fortunes of the Bosnian army.
Muslim-led government forces have lately made small advances into the 70% of Bosnian territory seized by Serbian nationalist rebels over the past 28 months, and quelling Abdic's revolt should free up more troops for that effort.
However, the routing of Abdic supporters unleashed panic among the residents of Velika Kladusa. Thousands of women and children and soldiers who had thrown down their weapons fled across the border to Serb-held territory in Croatia, only to be denied refuge with the Serbian rebels who had earlier backed the Abdic revolt, U.N. refugee agency officials said.
As many as 10,000 Bihac residents were massed at the border or force-marched by Croatian Serbs toward the mined and dangerous no-man's-land between the Serb- and Croatia-controlled areas.
Croatian authorities also were reported to be denying refuge to the fleeing Muslims, leaving them stranded between Croatian and Serbian forces.
"We are facing a humanitarian catastrophe at the border," the U.N. Protection Force civilian affairs chief, Sergio de Mello, warned from mission headquarters in Zagreb, Croatia.
Soldiers of the Bosnian army's 5th Corps found Abdic's hilltop castle empty when they reached it after an overnight advance, according to U.N. military observer reports from the region.
"The government forces have complete control of the town. Things are reported to be quieting down," U.N. spokesman Maj. Dacre Holloway said.
Abdic's whereabouts were unknown, but Holloway said it was presumed he had fled the country.
The wealthy businessman-turned-warlord owns several homes in Croatia and Western Europe, but he may be vulnerable to extradition orders because he is wanted for questioning in Austria for alleged embezzlement of funds intended for Bosnian refugees.
Serbian rebels who have proclaimed the occupied areas of Croatia their independent Republic of Serbian Krajina were reported to have offered Abdic refuge in their rogue capital, Knin.
A tycoon with a criminal record from the Communist era, Abdic is renowned for black-marketing ventures and was believed to have rebelled against the Sarajevo government to take advantage of lucrative trade opportunities with the Serbian rebels who surround the Bihac pocket.
He amassed an armed following by gaining control over humanitarian aid brought in by U.N. troops for the nearly 300,000 Bihac residents cut off from normal commerce by the encircling Serbian forces.
Abdic's control over what he proclaimed the Autonomous Republic of Western Bosnia collapsed after Krajina Serbs ceased backing the Muslim warlord's military forays.
Hundreds of Abdic supporters surrendered over the past month as villages of his proclaimed fiefdom fell to government forces.
U.N. officials have been working with the Sarajevo government to produce an amnesty agreement that would allow civilians to return to their homes in the Bihac region and establish procedures for Abdic's gunmen to surrender.