Muslims encircle Croats in Vitez

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The Independent Online
STREET by street, house by house, Bosnian Muslim forces are tightening their noose around Vitez, the Croatian- held town whose fate could determine the course of the war in central Bosnia. The Muslims' slow but remorseless advance follows a string of victories over the Croats since their anti-Serbian alliance broke down last April. It threatens to shatter the Croatian dream of uniting a large part of Bosnia with the Croatian motherland.

According to a United Nations military spokesman, Colonel Bill Aikman, Muslim forces attacked Vitez from the north and south on Monday and made significant gains by the end of the day. About 68,000 Croats are encircled in this part of the Lasva valley, an area that serves as the main base for the British UN peace- keeping contingent in Bosnia.

If the Muslims take Vitez, they will have a much more compact territory in which to construct a rump Bosnian state and from which to pursue their other aim of rolling back Serbian gains in northern and eastern Bosnia. Bosnia's Muslim-led government has negotiated with the Serbs and Croats about a three-way division of the republic, but many Muslim political and military leaders still believe that Bosnia should remain a single state with an authentic central government in Sarajevo.

Croatia's defeats have caused a surge in public disapproval of President Franjo Tudjman and his policy of colluding with Serbia in Bosnia's carve-up. Opposition parties, and the centrist and liberal wings of Mr Tudjman's own ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), say that Croatia cannot realistically expect to regain the 30 per cent of Croatian territory lost to the Serbs in 1991 if Mr Tudjman is simultaneously scheming to partition Bosnia.

Croatian commanders have warned that they will bolster their military presence in central Bosnia if the Muslims continue to capture land and expel Croatian civilians in a mirror image of Serbian expulsions of Muslims elsewhere in Bosnia. 'Anyone who would try to trespass on what is ours will be attacked with all weaponry available,' said General Janko Bobetko, the supreme commander of Croatia's forces.

Croats made up about 17 per cent of Bosnia's pre-war population. In 1992 nationalist elements in the southwest established a breakaway state called Herzeg-Bosnia. However, the Muslims - destroyed by the Serbs on other fronts - have gone a long way to eradicating historical Croatian communities in central Bosnia.

Mr Tudjman has floated the idea of letting the Muslims have the towns of Kiseljak and Kresevo, west of Sarajevo, if they agree to Croatian control of the more important towns of Vitez and Gornji Vakuf. But the proposal drew a blank response from Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's Muslim government. Muslim-Croat peace talks in Bonn made no progress this week, but the two sides and the Serbs are due to meet in Geneva on 18 January.

GENEVA - Boutros Boutros-Ghali, told the UN envoy for Yugoslavia, Yasushi Akashi, to advise him by next week on how to implement Nato proposals for air strikes against Serbs, AP reports.

Bosnia appeal, page 17