Croats deepen Mostar divide

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International efforts to reunite the southern Bosnian city of Mostar suffered a setback yesterday when separatist Bosnian Croats boycotted the first meeting of the city council.

The boycott augurs poorly for Bosnia's first post-war national elections on 14 September, which international observers fear may entrench Bosnia's ethnic divisions rather than reunite the country.

Mostar is split into a Croat-controlled western sector of about 45,000 people, and a Muslim-controlled east of about 55,000, following a savage war between Muslims and Croats in 1993 and early 1994, when both were nominal allies against the Bosnian Serbs.

On account of the Croat boycott, Muslim members of Mostar's council decided yesterday to postpone the selection of a mayor and deputy mayor for the city. But they elected a council president, Hamdija Jahic, who is the local leader of the Muslim-led Party of Democratic Action (SDA).

"As you see, the [Croat] representatives are not here, but I hope that they will take part in our next session," Mr Jahic told council members.

The Croats defended their boycott on the grounds that the municipal elections of 30 June, which produced a narrow victory for their Muslim political rivals, had been marred by irregularities in votes cast abroad by Muslim refugees. The Croats also argued that the European Union, which has had a mandate since July 1994 to reunite Mostar, had overstepped its responsibilities by publishing the election results and declaring the poll fair.

However, Bosnian Muslim leaders contended that the true purpose of the Croat boycott was to keep alive the possibility that Mostar would one day become the capital of a Bosnian Croat state, or even be absorbed into Croatia. In a letter to the Irish presidency of the EU, Bosnia's Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, condemned the boycott as "block- ing the entire process of democratically overcoming the Mostar crisis, and creating a dangerous precedent for the September elections".

Under last year's Dayton peace settlement, Muslims and Croats are united in a federation that occupies 51 per cent of Bosnia, whereas 49 per cent is under Bosnian Serb control. But tensions and suspicions have plagued the Muslim-Croat relationship since the 1993-94 war, and international observers say the Dayton settlement may collapse if efforts to reunite Mostar are unsuccessful.

The municipal elections gave 28,165 votes to the SDA and its coalition partners, and 26,464 votes to the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). In practice, this means Muslims and their allies will have a one- vote majority on the city council, should the Croats change their minds and take their seats.

From a Muslim viewpoint, the Croats have never been genuinely committed to reuniting Mostar. Recently the Croat mayor of western Mostar, Mijo Brajkovic, said that just as the Muslims possessed Sarajevo and the Bosnian Serbs had the northern city of Banja Luka, so the Croats should have Mostar.

Nationalist Croats from western Herzegovina regard Mostar as the capital of the self-proclaimed Croat mini-state of Herzeg-Bosnia, which has survived, partly thanks to support from Croatia.

In an interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel last year, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia said: "The Muslims wanted to reign over the whole of Mostar then gain ground to the sea, and finally create an Islamic state. That is what our Croats are defending themselves against."