Bihac prays the UN will not make it 'safe': Robert Block reports from an enclave where Muslims and Croats eye one another warily

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The Independent Online
THE BLASTS that rattle the streets of Bihac these nights do not come from Serbian mortars but from the megabase pumping out the jam at the Nevada disco. Outside the club in a pitch-black minority Croatian neighbourhood, couples snog long and deep and do not flinch when caught in the headlights of the occasional car.

Inside young men in camouflage fatigues move about under the strobe lights knocking back beers and searching for girls, a quarry seemingly rarer than the enemy. Even flared trousers have made it to Bihac, as sported by the only two male dancers on the floor.

For Joseph, a 16-year-old Croat who 'loves to dance', Nevada, which opened two months ago, was a godsend. The nights in the besieged town used to be 'the most boring time of all'.

Compared with life in other 'safe areas', such as Srebrenica, a refugee camp for the miserable and dispossessed of eastern Bosnia, or Gorazde, now the latest target for Serbian guns, the north-western Bosnian town of Bihac is a paradise.

It still has a functioning plastics factory, a chocolate factory, a canning industry, a brewery, a water company, a hospital and an electricity plant which now produces only six megawatts. All 305,000 people living in the Bihac pocket have running water, but only priority buildings have electricity.

But Bihac will prove to be a difficult 'safe area' to enforce.

It is surrounded by Bosnian and Krajina Serb forces, and nobody can leave the area: not Muslims, not Croats, nor even the estimated 1,500 Serbs still living here. Many buildings in the centre of town are sandbagged, and the roads are pitted in places by Serbian shells.

A ceasefire has been holding for three weeks, but about 20 shells land in the pocket every night and there are skirmishes on the front lines.

Most Muslims in Bihac are fiercely opposed to making it a formal 'safe area', which would require demilitarising the town. 'We would never agree to that. We will never give up our guns,' said Irfan Ljubijankic, head surgeon at the hospital and once president of Bihac's regional assembly.

According to Dr Ljubijankic and others, it has been the unyielding defence of the town that has led the Bosnian Serbs to ease their siege in favour of softer targets such as Gorazde, Zepa and Maglaj. The expectation though is that the Serbs will be back. The greatest prize Bihac offers is the Unska railway, which, if taken, would connect the isolated Krajina Serbs to Banja Luka and finally to mother Serbia.

However, in this town of Muslims and Croats it is a fight 200 miles away that is fraying alliances: the battle of Mostar, where Muslims are fighting their erstwhile allies, the Bosnian Croat defence forces (HVO).

Bihac, about 100 miles south-east of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, is drawn more to Croatia than Serbia, a fact which many fear may eventually lead to fighting between Croats and Muslims if Croatia and Serbia agree to carve up Bosnia between them.

Muslim and Croat military leaders in Bihac stress the importance of co-operation against the Bosnian and Krajina Serbs, and all insist that Mostar will not happen here.

'Of course we are worried about it (Mostar) . . . but . . . Mostar must not reflect on this area,' said the commander of the V Corps of the Bosnia-Herzegovina army, Captain Ramiz Drekovic, who has the functions of a general. 'We can't allow them to form a greater Serbia or a greater Croatia inside the territory of Bosnia Herzegovina.'

Across town at what used to be a bank office the HVO maintains a separate command headquarters, different uniforms and more importantly, different aspirations from Captain Drekovic.

The HVO commander in Bihac is Major-General Vado Santic, a burly 41-year-old Croat who was appointed to head the HVO in Bihac by his uncle Mate Boban, the leader of the Bosnian Croats. 'Here we are cooperating, but, of course, we are not for a unitary Bosnia-Herzegovina. Everybody, of course, has the right to think whatevery they want . . . but the V Corps is just a drop in the ocean. We are soldiers and we are ready for anything.'

Away from the noise of the dance floor, Joseph said that he no longer feels comfortable with his Muslim friends. 'They are our enemies now. Muslims have all the power here and the Croats have nothing.'

Tension in Belgrade, page 10

(Maps omitted)