Muslims' knives out for Izetbegovic: Bosnian President seen as too inflexible following Serb-Croat deal on partition

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The Independent Online
AN EMERGENCY session of the Bosnian presidency met in Zagreb last night amid speculation that President Alija Izetbegovic might be ousted following humiliating diplomatic and military defeats.

Mr Izetbegovic rushed back from Copenhagen, where European Community foreign ministers told him in harsh terms to sue for peace with Serbs at the bargaining table, following the collapse of the Vance-Owen plan for Bosnia and the announcement of a Serb-Croat deal to carve up Bosnia into three ethnic states.

One of the two international peace mediators, Thorvald Stoltenberg, said Bosnian Serbs will still have to surrender some of their territorial conquests before a three-way carve-up of Bosnia wins international endorsement. 'But it must not be forgotten that Muslims have also seized territory,' he added, in a reference to the recent Muslim offensive against Croats in central Bosnia. There is widespread recognition inside the Bosnian Muslim leadership that Mr Izetbegovic's inflexible stance no longer looks realistic, after a series of shattering defeats for the Muslims on the battlefields of Bosnia and at the international negotiating table.

Instead the name of Fikret 'Babo' Abdic is being touted as a likely successor. Mr Abdic was a highly successful businessman before the war, who transformed his home town of Velika Kladusa in north-west Bosnia from a dusty Muslim backwater into a thriving centre for food processing. A brief spell in prison under the Communists in the mid-1980s made him a popular hero in Bosnia. Mr Abdic's known virtues are flexibility, a cool head and a known ability to do business with Serbs and Croats, as well as Muslims. Although a member of Mr Izetbegovic's Muslim-dominated Party of Democratic Action, he was never associated with the religious faction which has raised the hackles of Bosnia's Christian majority.

On arriving in Zagreb for the Bosnian Presidency meeting at the weekend, Mr Abdic appeared to put himself forward as a man who could make the best of a three-way partition of Bosnia. 'Not one idea of the future of Bosnia should be rejected,' he said. Mr Izetbegovic has emphatically rejected the plan.

The seven-member Bosnian presidency is composed of two Croats, two Serbs, two Muslims and one Yugoslav. The two Croats are expected to vote for Mr Izetbegovic's withdrawal, following spectacular recent scenes of bloodshed between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia. The future of the President rests with the votes of the remaining members.

Mr Izetbegovic, 67, has been in many a tight corner before, and he may yet outwit his critics. But in Sarajevo, one government minister, Nikola Kovac, added his voice to those calling for Mr Izetbegovic to go. 'The situation is unbearable and the future of Mr Izetbegovic at the head of the Bosnian state is on the line,' he said. 'It must be said he is now an obstacle to peace.'

Serb forces blocked a UN relief column heading for Gorazde yesterday as peace-keepers in the besieged east Bosnian enclaves pressed for the air evacuation of scores of seriously wounded Muslims.

(Map omitted)