Shoot-out reveals Croat divisions

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ZAGREB - Croatia's military campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina was thrown into chaos yesterday after government-supported forces shot dead the top Croatian paramilitary commander in the republic, writes Tony Barber.

The killing highlighted the extreme tensions between rival Croatian armed units and threatened to set off internal blood-letting at a time when the Croats are supposed to be allied with the Muslims in resisting the Serbian war effort in Bosnia.

The murdered commander was Blaz Kraljevic, the leader of Bosnia's Croatian Defence Forces (HOS), the powerful paramilitary wing of the neo-fascist Croatian Party of Rights. The HOS has thousands of armed irregulars in Bosnia and believes that the entire republic should be annexed to Croatia.

Mr Kraljevic was killed in a gangster-style shoot-out with a unit of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO), a force based in Bosnia that was set up with the approval of the Croatian government led by President Franjo Tudjman. The HVO is nominally part of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat armed forces but in practice it has spent less time fighting the Serbs than carving out an independent Croatian region in western Herzegovina, which borders Croatia's Adriatic coast. This region is known as Herzeg-Bosna and is in some senses already part of Croatia, with the Croatian flag flying there and Croatian money in circulation.

The hostility between the HVO and the HOS exploded into violence on Sunday afternoon in the village of Krusevo outside Mostar, the capital of Herzeg-Bosna. According to the HVO, two HOS vehicles refused to stop at a checkpoint manned by the HVO and military police. Instead their passengers opened fire with automatic weapons, killing a police lieutenant and seriously wounding one of his comrades.

The HVO and police returned fire and shot dead all the passengers, who included Mr Kraljevic. The Croatian Party of Rights said in a statement that preliminary information indicated that nine HOS members had been killed in the gun battle as well as an unknown number of men from the HVO and police.

The party's deputy leader, Ante Djapic, ordered HOS units not to retaliate and warned that 'history has shown that the worst thing for Croats is when brother fires on brother'.

The HVO-HOS rivalry is reflected in the political scene in Croatia, where Mr Tudjman is under fierce attack from the far right for not winning back territory lost to the Serbs last year.

However, Mr Tudjman scored a decisive victory in presidential and parliamentary elections last week, with the far right picking up less than 6 per cent of the votes.

The Croatian Party of Rights believes the result vastly understated its real strength and has threatened to employ 'a radical solution' to assert its influence in Croatia.