Bosnian army troops defect to rebels in Bihac

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SARAJEVO - President Alija Izetbegovic's struggle to hang on to the breakaway district of Bihac took an ominous turn yesterday with reports of large troop defections to the rebel side.

A Belgrade-based spokesman for the United Nations said there were reports that three infantry battalions had switched allegiance to Fikret Abdic, Mr Izetbegovic's Muslim rival in Bihac. The spokesman, Peter Osborne, said the defections included about 2,500 men from the 5th Brigade of the Bosnian army's 5th Corps.

Their loss would be a serious blow to Mr Izetbegovic, who is labouring to hold together what little Bosnian territory is still held by Muslims after 18 months of war. Bosnian army officials said Mr Izetbegovic had met commanders from the Cazin area in Bihac, who pledged loyalty to his government. The meeting apparently was an effort by the President to prevent more defections.

Soldiers of the government's 5th Corps have clashed with troops backing Mr Abdic for days. The rebellious local leader last week declared the Bihac area independent of the rest of Muslim-controlled Bosnia. The so-called Bihac pocket, is tucked in north-western Bosnia on the border with Croatia. It covers about 860 sq miles. Aid officials say about 300,000 people live there, many of them refugees.

Mr Abdic is credited with using his pre-war business contacts with Serbs and Croats to spare Bihac from most of the fighting that has ruined the rest of Bosnia. Most local residents believe they will be better off as an autonomous region trading with neighboring Croats and the Serbs.

Both sides reported casualties on Monday and accused each other of shelling in a town on the outskirts of Velika Kladusa, Mr Abdic's stronghold. 'Blood is flowing again,' a Bosnian radio reporter, Mirza Sadikovic, said in a report from army headquarters in Bihac.

The UN came under fire yesterday from Serbs angry with the UN after the Security Council extended the peace-keeping mandate in Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia by six months with a new resolution that warned the rump Yugoslavia, not to support rebel Serbs in Croatia.

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