Croat police try to seize suburb in Sarajevo

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In an audacious but futile attempt to expand Croat authority in Bosnia's fractious Muslim-Croat Federation, 22 Bosnian Croat policemen yesterday tried to take control of Hadzici, the third Serb-held suburb of Sarajevo reverting to government rule under the Dayton peace plan.

The Croats, who claimed to be acting on the orders of the deputy interior minister, were ordered out by the UN police chief, backed by a threat of force, and departed an hour before the scheduled arrival of a multi- ethnic federal police unit.

Yesterday morning the first of 71 Federation officers - 51 Muslims, 5 Croats and 15 Serbs, to reflect the area's pre-war mix - arrived to take over Hadzici, its wartime Serb population reduced from around 10,000 to a few hundred.

Several dozen Muslim civilians streamed across the former front line to check on the condition of the homes that they had to leave in 1992.

"At last we can breathe freely," Danica Matic, a woman who had stayed in Hadzici throughout the war, said tearfully, as Avdo Hebib, the Interior Minister, re-opened the police station. There was a loud explosion, as a door in the building had been booby-trapped, but no one was hurt.

Ms Matic's elderly friend, Viktorija Milinovic, a Croat who had also stayed in Hadzici, seemed not to notice the bang - she was hugging an old man. "This is Muhamed," she cried, as the two wept and exchanged greetings. "He's my neighbour, I haven't seen him since the war began."

"Four years," he said, wiping his eyes.

Mr Hebib was mobbed by reporters asking about the Croat incursion, about which he knew nothing. "I heard there were some police here without my approval," he said. "I haven't been in touch with my deputy, so I don't know [if he issued orders to the Croat police]. But everything's going well."

Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald, head of the UN International Police Task Force, which monitors the local force, greeted Mr Hebib.,"We had a few problems before you arrived," he said. TheCroat police presence had caused tension with French troops from Nato's peace force (I-For), although eventually the Croat inspector had withdrawn his men.

"When I got here at about six, there were a few of them patrolling the streets," Commissioner Fitzgerald said. "I told them to leave immediately, because they were in violation of the Dayton accord. I told them to leave peacefully but said that if they did not, I was prepared to call I-For and use force if necessary."

Few of Hadzici's Serbs have remained. A few yards from the smouldering ruins of the town hall, torched on Tuesday night by departing Serbs, a man and an old woman waited with a few possessions for a lift to Serb- held territory. "I spent four years in a concentration camp [a government prison, in Tarcin, 15km away] and I don't think things have changed much since then," the man said bitterly.

"Some of the Serbs living here could have stayed," Ms Matic said. "But it's the propaganda," added Ms Milinovic. "They were told to go - they even tried to tell me I had to leave. But I think some of them will come back, because the conditions for [Serbs fleeing Sarajevo] are not fit to live in."

Salko Gosto, a federal policeman, smiled when asked how he felt on returning to Hadzici. "It's a little bit difficult, but it's fine," he said. "I worked in this police station for 16 years before the war, and when I saw what my office looked like I was so sad. There are a lot of explosives upstairs."