Outrage Muslims cannot forgive: British UN troops in Vitez saw the village of Ahinici after it was 'ethnically cleansed' by the Croats

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The Independent Online
THE LAST lesson in Ahinici was geography. On the blackboard a neat hand has written in Serbo-Croat: 'Field - a flat cultivated piece of land.' A picture of Tito which survived the blaze that destroyed the building hangs on the wall. If all-out war rages in central Bosnia between Muslims and Croats, it may be because of the attack on Ahinici.

The small Muslim village, with views of the British UN base at Vitez, was torched and razed at the weekend by Croats.

No one lives among these smoking ruins now. Yesterday it fell to the British UN forces in Vitez to inspect the blackened houses and locate dead bodies. They took away 40 bodies found lying in the street.

They found more in No 45, a small house with a green iron gate on rusty hinges. A bicycle lay beside the garage. A baby- sized red rubber boot lay on the grass verge. Three cows grazed peacefully in the garden.

The burnt bodies of what looked like a young boy and a man lay twisted and blackened on the stairs beside the front door. In the cellar, soldiers found five more bodies, three of which were identified as a woman and two children.

Most of the inhabitants of Ahinici fled before the Croats attacked the village. This family did not. It looked like a mother and father with their two children and two other relatives. But it was impossible to tell; the bodies were charred beyond recognition. The Croats razed Ahinici house by house with a large quantity of explosives.

The British soldiers were horrified by their grim discovery, but at first there was no one to hear their outrage. A car puttered up the dusty road driven by a local man. A Croatian officer sat in the passenger seat.

'This is a disgrace which you should be ashamed of,' Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Stewart, Commander of British Forces in Vitez, shouted at the driver, who was forced to stop behind a British armoured personnel carrier.

The Croatian officer kept his eyes fixed on the road. The driver's gaze shifted uneasily. 'You do not have permission to be here from the Croatian forces,' he announced. 'I don't need your bloody permission, I am the local UN Commander,' Col Stewart thundered. 'Who was responsible for this outrage?' The driver muttered: 'I know nothing about it.'

Only six houses in Ahinici remain intact. They are the homes of Croats. They were deserted except for one, where an old man sat on a balcony. The soldiers asked him to explain what had happened. But the old man got up and disappeared indoors.

The Croats had even killed much of the livestock. Cows lay dead in the fields; a small russet-haired dog lay on the grass, a bullet through its head. One puppy whimpering on the porch of a burnt house found a new master. A soldier took it back to the British base in Vitez.

The attack on Ahinici was not an isolated incident. The Bosnian Muslims are gaining ground in central Bosnia at the Croats' expense. The Muslims are inching out from Zenica towards the Croat-held valleys to the south-west. Last week, the Muslims captured the crucial hilltops above Vitez. At the same time they have captured Travnik, the largest town in central Bosnia, from the Croats.

Anticipating a Muslim assault on Vitez, the Croats have 'ethnically cleansed' the valley, destroying Muslim villages. Ahinici, close to the main road, was an obvious target.

The commander of the Muslim-led Bosnian army and the Bosnian Croat commander declared a ceasefire on Wednesday. The Muslims ordered their forces to retreat from the hilltops over Vitez back to Zenica.

'The Muslims can win this battle but they know they can lose the war,' said Major Bryan Watters of the British battalion in Vitez. The Muslims cannot afford a drawn-out struggle; the Croats would sever supply lines and expose them to a potential knock-out blow from the Serbs.

But the Muslim commanders' wish to repair relations with the Croats may not influence local Muslim fighters, who are thirsty for revenge. On the hilltop above Vitez, one Muslim commander shook his head when Col Stewart showed him a map depicting the agreed ceasefire line. 'No way, we are not leaving off now,' he said. 'We are carrying on with this war to the very end.'

Muslim fighters buzzed around the colonel like flies. They were good-humoured but adamant that there could be no peace with the Croats now, let alone a withdrawal. 'Ahinici' they shouted. 'We do not kill babies, but the Croats have massacred our children.'

Leading article, page 21

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 22

(Photograph omitted)

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