Muslims force Croats into the mountains: After recent Croatian attacks in central Bosnia, the military balance around Vitez shifts in favour of the larger Islamic population

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ON TOP of a mountain above Zenica, where the peaks seem to touch the sky, Croats who have fled from Muslim-held Zenica manned a wooden barricade, training their rifles on the road winding into the valley below.

About 700 Croats have fled from Zenica in the wake of bloody clashes between Croats and Muslims in the city, the torching of the Muslim village of Ahinici, near Vitez in central Bosnia, and retaliatory attacks on Croatian villages near Zenica.

There is no evidence that Muslims have carried out massacres of civilians similar to the Croatian attack on Ahinici at the weekend, where families were burnt alive in their homes.

But there is much fear in Zenica and many have fled for their lives. The Croatian panic is fuelled by a shift in the military balance of power in the region to the advantage of the Muslims. They have edged the Croats out of Travnik and Zenica.

At the weekend, the Muslim-led Bosnian army drove Croatian forces out of Zenica. They attacked the Croatian headquarters in a suburb, and imprisoned hundreds of Croatian soldiers who surrendered. At least 20 Croatian soldiers and seven civilians have been killed in the fighting. Now the blue-and-white Bosnian flag flutters without rivals over the city.

But many of the panic-stricken Croats who fled to the mountain-top sanctuary of Grahovcici appeared to have been misinformed. One old man said: 'The Muslims have burnt my village to the ground.'

'Where is it?' I asked.

'Stranjari,' he said.

Minutes later a car driven by two Croatian women drew up to the barricade. They said they had come from Stranjari to plead with their menfolk to come home, and they wept.

'Everyone wants you to come back home,' cried the two women.

'Don't be so stupid woman, my village has burnt down,' the men said.

'That is a lie,' one woman replied. 'Our Muslim neighbours have protected everything from harm. They are calling you to come back.' The other said: 'For God's sake give up your weapons and come home.'

'Give up our weapons?' one man shouted. 'Have you gone mad? The weapons are our only security]'

Along the road, the Bosnian Muslim policemen scratched their heads. 'Are those crazies coming down or not?' one enquired. 'Did you see a girl called Jadranka, she is my girlfriend?' asked another policeman. 'I suppose they have told you we have torched their villages,' he added.

In Zenica, the local Croatian party leader, Josip Pojavnik, and the Catholic priest were trying to restore relations between Muslims and Croats and to persuade the villagers holed up in Grahovcici to return to Zenica.

The mayor of Zenica dispatched three buses to the village to transport anyone who wanted to go home back to Zenica. The buses returned empty.

Mr Pojavnik faces an uphill task. Unless the authorities release the Croatian soldiers, few male Croats will feel safe in Zenica. A rocket fired into the city from Croat-held positions on Monday, which killed 14 people, increased his troubles. 'The evil events in Vitez are affecting us here,' he said. 'But I am calling on Muslims in Zenica not to blame the Croatian nation as a whole. Things were quietening down, but then came this rocket.'

The Bosnian authorities are sincere when they say they want Croats to stay in Zenica. They want to preserve the tradition of ethnic tolerance for which Bosnians, and above all Bosnian Muslims, were once famous.

But things are changing. The Muslims are starting to feel the strength of their superior numbers. The atrocity committed in Ahinici has embittered feelings towards Croats for good. 'The Croat forces had a positive role in Bosnia at the beginning of this war,' said Azijat Imamovic of the Bosnian press agency. 'But they have tried to dominate the Muslims. All along we knew we would end up fighting a war on two fronts. Now the Croat forces are the enemy.'