Attack mars Mostar's new unity

Bosnia: Violent tensions between Croats and Muslims resurface despite joint police patrols
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The Independent Online
The day when Mostar's Muslim and Croat citizens were to be allowed full freedom of movement in their divided city was marked by an attack by Croats on the first carload of Muslims to cross the line. In sullen mood, under tremendous political pressure and three hours late, the Bosnian Croat police forces on the west bank of the Neretva river eventually began to comply with the latest agreement to unify the embattled city. At 3pm the first Muslim-Croat patrols set out, precursors to the combined force that is scheduled to start work on 1 March as a first step to unification.

Forty-five minutes before the midday deadline - when police from both banks of the river, accompanied by officers from the Bosnian Federation, Croatia and the Western European Union (WEU), were supposed to start joint patrols - the Bosnian Croat police had announced they would not participate. Presumably after pressure from Zagreb - the Croatian Interior Minister was called to a meeting with Hans Koschnick, the German who administers Mostar for the EU - the local Croats changed their minds.

The second provision of the deal - full freedom of movement across the front line - was also instantly violated by the local Croat police, who flooded their half of the city and set up numerous illegal check-points.

The atmosphere near the main checkpoint at noon was ugly; one man wearing a Hitler mask shouted racist abuse at Muslims gathered nearby. A carload of young Muslims was allowed to pass by Croatian police, then was blocked by a group of Croats in civilian dress who fired shots around the car. Its occupants were dragged out and beaten up. Witnesses said that police ignored the beating, and that at one point a Croatian police car drove past.

The police then arrested four Muslims and one Croat, apparently for not having the proper identification cards. They were later released, but the WEU is investigating allegations that one man was beaten.

By early afternoon, a crowd of around 50 Muslim men had gathered at Hit Square, a junction on the former front line devastated by the vicious Muslim-Croat war of 1993, to await news of friends arrested on the west bank. A trickle of women and children trailed past in the rain, crossing to the other side, but the young men said they were afraid to follow suit.

"We can't cross because they will just arrest us," said Azer, a teenager. "We would like the city to be re-united but they don't want it. When our police cross, we will go." The west bank Croats "stole everything from us and it's not in their interest to let us go back. We all had houses in the west, we're all refugees," said Damir, a 21-year-old Muslim.

Joint police patrols - restricted to the small city-centre "neutral" zone - did eventually start yesterday, but even they do not bring both sides of the local police force together. Instead, each patrol consists of two WEU police cars, each with a WEU officer. One car contains an east bank policeman and an officer from Croatia, the other a west bank policeman and an officer from elsewhere in the Bosnian Federation.

But by 1 March, the city's force is supposed to be completely unified. "Why not?" said Pero Pandza, a young west Mostar policeman on the first joint patrol. "Things should move faster and move better than before." His opposite number from the Bosnian Federation - he would not give his name - agreed. The atmosphere was civil, if not convivial.

By 5pm, most of the Bosnian Croat police had disappeared from street corners near the front line: one checkpoint remains outside the EU headquarters, and at another police routinely, but illegally, demand ID cards.

Tensions appeared to have calmed as night fell, but there is no guarantee that the Croat gangsters who run Mostar, and who have consistently blocked all attempts at reunification, will heed Mr Koschnick's plea to "Stop the system of the Wild West".