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Bosnian City Mirrors Croat-Muslim Suspicions : Balkans: Mostar is still divided, but Serb shelling may bolster the two groups' fragile alliance.

November 08, 1994|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Maja Tomic shrugged with feigned disinterest when asked why this city's Muslims and Croats remain divided by the Neretva River, despite two rebuilt bridges and seven months of reconciliation talks.

Then a heavy artillery shell fired from Serbian positions crashed somewhere to the north, startling her out of the pose of indifference and twisting her fuchsia-lined mouth into a worried frown. Suddenly, the 19-year-old waitress found the words to describe her city's lingering discontent.

"It's the Serbs we're worried about," said Tomic, fretfully glancing at the rebel-held highland overlooking the east bank of physically and ethnically divided Mostar. "We don't have so many problems with the Muslims anymore."

With each artillery round Bosnian Serb fighters lob on the population of Mostar--a seam in the former Yugoslav republic's ethnic patchwork that has already been ripped open three times in this war--the rebels may be doing more to strengthen the fragile Muslim-Croatian alliance than to destroy it.

U.N. military observers believe a recent resumption of random shelling in Mostar and intensified efforts to strangle the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo are aimed at undermining the fledgling federation proclaimed in March when Bosnia's Muslims and Croats laid down their arms after a vicious, yearlong war.

But the renewed Serbian attacks have also served to remind the divided people of Mostar that the nationalist rebels who first sparked Bosnia-Herzegovina's spiraling bloodshed are a common enemy and should be regarded as the greater threat.

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The 8-month-old cease-fire between Bosnian Muslims and Croats remains vulnerable to unscrupulous politicians and the paralysis afflicting Balkan peace talks more than three years into the former Yugoslav federation's roiling conflict poses the risk of disillusioning both populations as they struggle to put the recent bloodletting behind them.

But an expanding European Union presence to oversee reconciliation and the Serbs' ill-timed reminders that another Muslim-Croatian divide could end in their conquest seems to be shoring up what has been a shaky and reluctant alliance.

The Muslims and Croats of Bosnia, who made up two-thirds of the prewar population, had jointly campaigned for salvaging the former Yugoslav federation as conflict in Croatia brewed four years ago. Together they opted for independence from bellicose Serbia after all efforts to save the federation had failed.

When local Serbs rebelled against Bosnia's April, 1992, vote for independence, they shelled the historic Turkish bazaar quarter of this riverfront city into rubble before being driven back over the east ridge two months later.

Mostar's ancient architectural monuments suffered an even more devastating assault when Croatian nationalists turned on this city's Muslim population, herding 55,000 townsmen into the bombed-out wreckage of the east bank and firing their own artillery at the captive enclave. Even Mostar's namesake Stari Most--Old Bridge, in Serbo-Croatian--crashed into the teal-blue waters of the Neretva when Croatian artillery destroyed the historical treasure deemed by the nationalists a "military object."

A U.S.-brokered agreement in March allegedly reunited these divided communities and set out the foundation for a new Bosnian federation that would ensure Muslims and Croats rule over more than half of the original Bosnian republic once a peace treaty with the Serbs was signed.

But with the Serbs steadfastly refusing to accept a split of Bosnia giving them only 49%, instead of the 72% of territory they have overrun, officials here and in Sarajevo concede the reconciliation has been tough going.

Under a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last spring with the expectation of a negotiated resolution of the war by now, the 12-nation European Union has taken over administration of Mostar to oversee its recovery and re-integration for the next two years.

As such, the troubled city has become a much-watched bellwether of the delicate Croatian-Muslim reconciliation across Bosnia.

"This city is a microcosm of the whole problem in Bosnia-Herzegovina," said Martin Garrod, the EU administration's British chief of staff. "If we can succeed in bringing people together here, it will provide a good example for the whole federation."

Garrod pointed proudly to the hundreds of people who now make day trips into what was once enemy territory. But he acknowledged that not a single displaced family has been allowed to return home, nor is one likely to make such a move anytime soon.

"There's a lot of bitterness left over from those who lost mothers, fathers and brothers," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight that we get rid of the situation we have now, which is two cities--one on the left bank and one on the right."

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