Muslims shift to muscle-flexing: Croats lose out as huge influx of refugees changes balance of forces in Bosnian town of Travnik

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The Independent Online
'THIS TOWN has changed beyond recognition' said Davor, a young Croat with bad teeth even by Bosnian standards. 'A year ago Croats and Muslims were nearly half-and-half in Travnik. Now when I walk down the street I don't know a soul, they are all Muslim refugees.'

When Ivo Andric, Yugoslavia's most celebrated 20th-century writer, wrote The Travnik Chronicles, Travnik was an ethnic mosaic of Muslim, Croats and Serbs. But the Travnik which Andric depicted has vanished. The town has been transformed under the twin pressures of Serb 'ethnic cleansing' in northern Bosnia and worsening Croat-on-Muslim violence in nearby Vitez.

Tens of thousands of Muslims expelled from northern Bosnia by Serbs have converged on Travnik, prompting an exodus of Croats and Serbs. The Vance-Owen plan to divide Bosnia into ethnic-based provinces awards Travnik to the Croats. But the influx of Muslims has made a nonsense of this. Last week the Muslims expelled Bosnian Croat forces from Travnik. Once cowed by the better- armed Croats, the Muslims are shifting into a muscle-flexing mood that reflects their superior numbers.

Gaunt warriors from Afghanistan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates stroll up Travnik's high street, conspicuous in green turbans. Opposite a noticeboard which proclaims 'Islam - the religion of the future', unsmiling local youths guarded the headquarters of the 'Seventh Muslim Brigade'. No, I could not go inside and no, the commander did not give interviews. One fighter did talk. He said the brigade was a special unit set aside for religious youths. 'We do not swear, we do not drink and we go to the mosque,' he said.

The soldier, wearing a green medallion engraved with an Arabic prayer, just laughed when asked if nearby Serb forces, only four miles away, posed a threat to Travnik's security. 'We have lost very few men, while the Chetniks (Bosnian Serbs) have lost hundreds. They are drunkards and drug addicts.'

The few non-Muslims serving in the local Bosnian army, headquartered in the grand barracks of the old Yugoslav army, are an eccentric group. Alexander Petrovic, 16, is a Serb from Belgrade, who has manned a Bosnian frontline for six months. His father was a former Yugoslav army officer based in Travnik who sided with the Muslims when fighting started in Bosnia and died in battle last year. Alexander pointed with pride to a row of fresh graves of Muslim fighters laid out in a small park. Most were local boys, but two marked the resting places of Arab fighters.

Up in the army barracks, Commander Sikret Suskic denounced the Vance-Owen plan as a trick Muslims would not accept. He said Muslims in Travnik would fight to the death to stop the town falling into a Croat- dominated region. 'Owen is like a crazy seamstress, knitting his stupid provincial borders,' said Cdr Suskic. 'There is only one border we will accept, the external border of Bosnia.'

'He should divide up his own country before coming to cut up ours,' added Nadza Ridzic, a Bosnian army spokeswoman.

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