Thousands flee as Bosnian rebel crushed: Muslim troops take control of Bihac fiefdom run by 'Daddy' Abdic

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of soldiers and civilians were fleeing from north- western Bosnia into Croatia yesterday, after Muslim-led Bosnian government forces began to crush a year-long revolt by rebel Muslims in the Bihac region. According to the United Nations, up to 1,000 troops and more than 5,000 civilians have crossed the Bosnian border since Monday into the Serbian-held area of Krajina in Croatia.

The collapse of the revolt, led by a maverick Bihac businessman named Fikret Abdic, would be a notable success for the Sarajevo- based Bosnian government. Mr Abdic's campaign to establish an autonomous region in north-western Bosnia meant that, for much of 1993 and early 1994, the Bosnian government was having to fight on three fronts - against the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian Croats and the Muslim rebels.

Mr Abdic was reportedly holed up in his castle in Velika Kladusa, where the atmosphere was 'very tense', according to a UN official.

Around 1,000 soldiers trapped between the villages of Sturlic and Trzac, some 20km south of Velika Kladusa, by soldiers of the 5th Corps, loyal to Sarajevo, moved west across the border into Krajina, UN officials said. Terrified locals followed suit. 'Some 4,000 to 5,000 civilian refugees have crossed into Krajina since 9am today,' said Paul Risley, a UN spokesman in Zagreb. 'About 1,000 more had crossed during the night and were camped out in the forest. The fear is that a much larger number could cross tonight or tomorrow, if people panic.'

Staff from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were in the area to assess the situation. 'The authorities in Knin (the Krajina 'capital') are not very welcoming,' said Mr Risley. 'They would like the UN to move them out . . . UNHCR will make an assessment and decide what to do with them.'

The Krajina Serbs, who have enjoyed fruitful trade relations with Mr Abdic, have often expressed concern about an influx of refugees from northern Bihac if government troops crush the breakaway 'Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia'. Mr Risley said that in the past 48 hours Serbian soldiers had removed 'a lot of weapons' from collection sites in northern Krajina, monitored by the UN, and moved them to the border with Bihac.

The collapse of Abdic forces began last week when Fifth Corps troops overran the town of Pecigrad, 10 miles south of Kladusa, forcing the surrender, on Thursday, of 1,000 Abdic soldiers. Since then, government forces have taken land south and west of Pecigrad. However, Mr Abdic, known as 'Babo' (Daddy) to his adoring subjects, is believed by the UN to remain in control of the northern half of his empire. 'A big chunk of it fell away today but it doesn't look like he's entirely collapsing,' Mr Risley said.

Residents of Velika Kladusa have weathered the nine-month war between Sarajevo and Mr Abdic well so far; because of their mentor's trade links, commercial convoys kept Kladusa well supplied. The fighting in Velika Kladusa yesterday was extremely heavy. 'The people are really scared. Panic in the streets - no; but there's panic in each house, I'm sure,' said Monique Tuffelli, the UNHCR chief in Bihac.

Ms Tuffelli said UNHCR was hoping for a political solution that would avert a wider humanitarian crisis. Senior UN officials discussed the possibility of negotiations with Mr Abdic and President Alija Izetbegovic. But given the scale of the Abdic losses, the Bosnian government may prefer to fight on.

Sarajevo has offered an amnesty to all rebel soldiers who return to the fold, and it seems unlikely Mr Abdic will be taken to court, despite the numerous accusations of treachery levelled against him in the past. 'Bosnia is not in a trial mood,' said Ejup Ganic, the Bosnian Vice-President, yesterday.