Croats to expel Bosnian refugees

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MAKARSKA - Croatian officials said yesterday that a truce between Muslims and Croats in Bosnia meant all Bosnian refugees would soon be ordered to leave Croatia.

The Croatian authorities said mainly Bosnian Croat refugees from Mostar in the south-west of Bosnia were the first group affected and would lose their status as refugees. But they did not specify a date when the displaced population would face expulsion. About 8,000 people from the divided city fled to Croatia after war broke out two years ago.

Bosnian Croats and Muslims signed a truce agreement in late February that ended 10 months of bitter fighting.

'Mostar was chosen as the first city for people to return to, as it is closest to Croatia of all crisis areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina,' said the Croatian office for refugee affairs in a statement issued in Zagreb yesterday. 'Since there have been no clashes between Croats and Bosnian Muslims for a long time, there is no security risk which would prevent their return.'

Some of the 2,500 Bosnian refugees in the resort of Makarska, on Croatia's Adriatic coast, told reporters that they had been shocked when the local office of refugee affairs had ordered them to leave Croatia by tomorrow or be expelled.

'I would like to go back, but my flat is destroyed and I have no place to stay,' said Marija, a middle-aged Bosnian Croat mother-of-three.

But the local authorities backed down later yesterday after intervention by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and clarification from the Zagreb refugee office. The Mostar refugees were assured that they would not be forced to leave so quickly against their will and that the resettlement would be a gradual process. Exceptions would be made for the elderly and sick. But the initial announcement caused confusion between refugees and officials.

Another Croatian official with the refugee office denied the Mostar refugees were being forced to leave against their will and said that they themselves had asked to leave. 'The decision on the return came purely as a result of the people asking to return to their homes,' Ana Marija Radic told Reuters in Zagreb.

'They reiterated their plea several times during their stay (in Croatia), but as the ceasefire has been holding for some time now, we have decided that this was the right time for the start of their return.'