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Croat Anger Puts Another Crack in Bosnian Peace

Balkans: Plan to divide city of Mostar sparks violence. Dispute over detained Serbs deepens.

February 08, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON and DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The Bosnian peace process was cracking on two fronts Wednesday as Croats rebelled over the European Union's plan to divvy up the city of Mostar and a dispute deepened over the Muslim detention of high-ranking Serbian officers as suspected war criminals.

Events in Mostar turned violent, with angry Croats stoning EU vehicles and surrounding the EU administrator, Hans Koschnick, in his car until NATO peacekeepers intervened. The Bosnian Croat leadership announced it was severing all ties with the EU, the body designated to manage and bring peace to the divided southern city, which was the scene of a brutal war between Muslims and Croats in 1993 and 1994.

Tensions in Mostar underscore the fragility of the Muslim-Croat federation that is the linchpin of the U.S.-brokered peace accord, which on Dec. 14 formally ended Bosnia-Herzegovina's war.

Meanwhile, Muslims and Serbs traded accusations over the Sarajevo government's arrest of 10 Serbs--including a Bosnian Serb army general--as suspected war criminals. Already infuriated Serbian leaders became even angrier Wednesday when the United Nations' war crimes tribunal asked the Bosnian government to continue to detain the men while the panel decides whether to indict them.

The men must "be released if we want peace on Bosnia-Herzegovina territory," said Gen. Milan Gvero, deputy to Bosnian Serb army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic.

Mladic--himself an indicted war criminal--issued a public statement after nearly two months of silence, warning that the "kidnapping" of the officers calls into question the impartiality of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led peacekeeping mission. Some of the Serbs were reportedly detained as they crossed NATO-supervised areas.

"The kidnapping presents a big test for the peace forces," Mladic said, according to Bosnian Serb television. "Either the Muslims will be shown that all nations get the same treatment, or the members of [NATO] are going to turn into a military force against the Serbs."

Protesting the arrests, the Serbian leadership Tuesday suspended contact with government officials and banned its members from traveling to government-held areas--meaning they would skip a meeting later this week with Britain's Prince Charles, among other people.

The Serbs contend that the Bosnian police violated the peace accord's free-movement provisions by arresting Gen. Djordje Djukic and Col. Aleksa Krsmanovic. The government is accusing Djukic and Krsmanovic of involvement in the massacres of civilians.

U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith, commander of all NATO forces in Bosnia and suddenly a man trying to put out multiple fires, traveled to Bosnian Serb military headquarters in Pale to appeal for calm and restraint. He told reporters that he was working on "how to get through this problem" and return "towards the cooperation we saw in the past."

"The international tribunal is doing its work. I think we have to allow that to proceed, and hopefully [this matter] will be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone," Smith told reporters.

The arrests were particularly problematic. The Muslim-led government sees itself empowered by the peace accord to push war criminals toward justice. The Bosnian Serbs see their worst nightmare realized: detention on what they consider trumped-up charges when they attempt to venture into government-held territory--precisely the fate dreaded by Serbs in Sarajevo suburbs that have reverted to government control under the peace treaty.

In Mostar, southwest of Sarajevo, tensions exploded after Koschnick announced a long-awaited plan to unify the city by drawing the boundaries of six districts. Three were to be Croat and three were to be Muslim. But Koschnick surprised his audience by adding a seventh central district that would control the railway station, airport and three power-generating stations.

Muslims from poorer eastern Mostar welcomed the plan, but the Croats, saying the seventh district would be dominated by Muslims who would thereby be given an advantage, protested vigorously.

Koschnick tried to leave the EU headquarters where he announced the decision, but his car was surrounded by demonstrators who covered the vehicle with a huge Croatian flag. Some of the protesters yelled, "He should be killed! . . . He should hang!" according to EU spokesman Dragan Gasic.

The primary problem in Mostar is that many of the hard-line Croats prefer to be part of neighboring Croatia and want nothing to do with the Muslim-Croat federation, which is to govern 51% of Bosnia under the peace accord.

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