Sarajevo tells Bihac rebels to go home

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BOSNIA and Croatia yesterday asked thousands of Muslim refugees to return to their homes near Bihac, three days after the Bosnian army crushed a secessionist statelet in north-western Bosnia.

Around 25,000 soldiers and civilians loyal to the rebellious businessman, Fikret Abdic, the leader of the self-proclaimed 'Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia', are camping in Serb-held areas of Croatia in the hope - almost certainly vain - of winning asylum in the West. The United Nations, which is giving them water, food and medicine, hopes they will return. So far few seem to believe the government's promise to guarantee their safety.

'We agreed that the refugees should return to their home area,' said Irfan Ljubijankic, the Bosnian Foreign Minister, after talks with his Croatian counterpart, Mate Granic. 'No one in Europe wants them. It is in their best interests to go home.' The refugees have reportedly asked for asylum in Germany and Austria. Sarajevo has offered an amnesty to the rebel troops but plans to try Mr Abdic for treason, if he is captured.

Mr Abdic's fiefdom fell on Sunday, when the Fifth Corps took Velika Kladusa, ending a vicious war between the Muslims of the Bihac region. UN officials praised the Bosnian army's restraint.

Velika Kladusa is 'extremely peaceful, very quiet', said Monique Tuffelli, the Bihac officer of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 'There have been no evictions at all and a minimum of casualties. Life is resuming.' She said the Fifth Corps had reduced its presence on the streets and that many people were going home.

But refugees in the Serb- held Krajina region in Croatia agreed with their former leader. He urged them not to give up. 'Our return is only possible if our tormentors, members of the Fifth Corps, withdraw from our homes,' said Mr Abdic. He is believed to be hiding in Krajina. According to the UN about 2,500 people are caught in Turanj, a no-man's land between Krajina and the rest of Croatia. About 22,000 are in Krajina: 16,000 are sleeping in the open at a disused chicken farm in Batnoga and 6,000 are encamped in Staro Selo, near Topusko.

Fazila Abdic, the tycoon's wife, and their daughter, were also reported to be trapped in Turanj. 'All I can tell you is that I am here with these people. I share their feelings,' Mrs Abdic was quoted as saying. 'I don't know where we are going but I'll go together with the others.'