Muslims and Croats jeopardise peace deal

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SERIOUS clashes between Croatian and Muslim forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina this week have underlined that Serbian territorial ambitions are not the only obstacle to a peace settlement.

As Western attention centred on whether the Bosnian Serbs would abandon their plans for a 'state-within-a-state' in Bosnia, the Croats and Muslims, who are nominal allies against the Serbs, fought artillery and mortar battles for three days in central Bosnia.

Radio Bosnia reported 'many dead and wounded' in the clashes, while Croatian newspapers said civilian and military targets had been hit. In Gornji Vakuf, where the fighting was especially intense, a British soldier serving with the United Nations forces in Bosnia was shot dead on Wednesday.

In Muslim eyes, the Croats seem intent on joining the Serbs in carving up Bosnia at the Muslims' expense. Their suspicions grew last July when Croats in western Herzegovina proclaimed a self-governing 'Community of Herzeg-Bosnia'. Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, not only failed to repudiate the move but allowed the area to turn into a virtual province of Croatia. Despite Croatia's denials that its forces have waged war in Herzegovina, Western reporters have met fighters there who openly admit that they have come from Croatia.

Croatia has got away with the de facto annexation of Western Herzegovina partly because Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs do not contest most of Croatia's territorial claims there. Another likely reason is that Western governments seem reluctant to highlight the issue of Croatian expansionism when, in their view, a bigger problem lies in Serbian territorial goals and in the devastation inflicted upon Bosnian Muslim communities by Serbian forces.

Nevertheless, Croatia may have been agreeably surprised when Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, the international mediators, unveiled their proposals in Geneva on 2 January for a post-war Bosnia consisting of 10 autonomous provinces. Their map showed the Bosnian Croats were to be allocated not just areas with an overwhelmingly Croatian population but towns where Muslims were the largest nationality before the war.

These included Gornji Vakuf, which was 56 per cent Muslim and 42 Croat, and Bugojno, which was 42 per cent Muslim, 34 Croat and 19 Serb.

Small wonder, then, that the Croats were the first to sign up for the Geneva plan. Scarcely a week later, however, Muslim and Croatian forces were fighting each other in areas assigned to the Croats. They were not the first such clashes. Sarajevo and Mostar witnessed several such incidents last year, and in Prozor, west of Sarajevo, a fierce encounter last October provoked Muslim accusations of Croatian 'ethnic cleansing'.

The Muslims face a dilemma. They need Croatian support to resist Serbian forces. At the same time, they suspect that Mr Tudjman has little sympathy for their cause and may even regard them as a long-term threat to Catholic Croatia because of their ties with the Islamic world. Sooner or later, the West will have to address the tensions in the Muslim-Croat relationship.

(Photograph omitted)