Croats and Muslims fight it out

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The Independent Online
ZAGREB - Bands of Bosnian Croat soldiers and Muslim troops rampaged through each other's villages near Vitez, in central Bosnia, yesterday, setting homes ablaze and expelling civilians, United Nations officials said in Vitez. 'Regrettably it's still going on. A lot of houses are on fire,' said Captain Lee Smart, a spokesman for British troops of the UN based there.

'It's 'cleansing' for want of a better word. It is, unfortunately, families being pushed out of the area.'

In Zagreb, the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, and the Bosnian Croat leader, Mate Boban, issued a joint appeal after meeting yesterday, calling on all units to stop the Croats and Muslims fighting and to release all prisoners.

Fierce rocket and artillery attacks had erupted around Vitez on Friday, in the worst fighting in the area since Bosnia's civil war began a year ago.

Captain Smart, said: 'Some figures may have duplicated but we have recorded between 70 and 100 bodies. That's probably a conservative estimate.' British soldiers found a group of 10 people - men, women and one child - who had been shot together in a field on the eastern edge of Vitez. Muslims were expelling Croat villagers from an area on one side of a road and Croats were doing the same to Muslims on the opposite side.

'They are polarising into ethnic groups. People are moving out with just what they can carry,' Captain Smart added.

Shelling had eased and British soldiers in Warrior armoured vehicles and armoured ambulances, who had helped ferry the dead and wounded to hospitals in Travnik, were back on the roads yesterday to try and calm the situation.

The Croatian news agency, Hina, said Muslim forces blocked the road from Travnik to Vitez, 15 miles to the south, and had launched attacks on the villages of Bare and Kubere near Busovaca, six miles south of Vitez.

Mr Izetbegovic and Mr Boban agreed to try to find a political solution to the conflict and said there was no reason for fighting between Croats and Muslims, nominal allies against Bosnian Serbs in the country's civil war.

They launched investigations to find out who and what caused the battles to break out.

A spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Zagreb, said no convoys would attempt to reach central Bosnia yesterday.

UN Protection Force officials said last week it was clear the two sides were trying to win control of areas which would ultimately come under their authority under an international peace plan for Bosnia. The plan would divide the republic into 10 cantons based largely on pre-war ethnic boundaries.