Time to forget the wounds of war and talk peace: Emma Daly in the divided city of Mostar finds the Croats ready to compromise

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NO BORDER crossing cuts the road from the Croatian port of Split to Mostar in south-western Herzegovina, nothing but the red-and- white checked Croatian flag, attended by Croatian policemen, marks the boundaries of two internationally recognised states - which is just how the Bosnian Croats in west Mostar like it.

The steep, winding road down through the hills around Mostar offers a panoramic view of the city's problems: the high ground is held on three sides by the Croats; the Muslims hold the east bank of the Neretva river and a few streets on the west bank; the Serbs, who originally besieged the city, are perched above them. All of Mostar is horribly vulnerable to attack.

On a sunny afternoon, the main street in west Mostar was packed with soldiers and civilians. A ceasefire agreed between the Muslim and Croatian commanders in Bosnia had held, more or less, since noon on Friday. Truce violations on Saturday and Sunday included sporadic rifle, machine-gun, mortar, and rocket-propelled grenade fire. It was quiet by Mostar's standards, and potentially the start of a resolution to the vicious war that has divided the city since May 1993.

Much blood has been spilt. Feelings run high on the street. One Croat complained that the Turks had made slaves of his forefathers, adding: 'That was 500 years ago. It's not a long time and I will fight to stop that happening again.' Croats were willing to live with 'local' Muslims, blaming refugees and other 'outsiders' for this war. But there was always a caveat: Mostar must be the capital of the Republic of Herzeg-Bosna, the mini-state the Croats want to carve from Bosnia, and no Mostar Croat would live under a Muslim government.

However, as the Rolling Stones sang from a crowded cafe, 'You can't always get what you want.' There are signs that the outside world will force a settlement. Following pressure from the United States on Zagreb, there is talk of a Croat-Muslim confederation within Bosnia, a counter-weight to Serbian power, and an older proposal for the European Union to administer the city for two years.

'This peace plan is quite special because the US is now a major player,' said Veso Vegar, of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO). 'We're all trying to find a solution, an end to this war, because it's quite stupid.' Like other Croats here, he blamed the Muslims for ceasefire violations, for extremism, for 'strange requests, like an outlet to the sea'. But he was eager to emphasise HVO co-operation with a Sarajevo-style UN plan to demilitarise the city, promising that all heavy weapons would be under the control of peace-keepers by 7 March, a tentative deadline set last week by the UN.

Father Kresimir Puljic, who runs the Roman Catholic charity Caritas in Mostar, senses the desire for a resolution on all sides but warned: 'Peace depends on foreign countries, on America, on Russia and the European Community.' Tony Vucic, of the HVO, echoed his view. 'What the West is trying to do is create a balance, and use a Muslim-Croat alliance as a counter- weight to Serbia. I feel that is necessary. For peace in the Balkans you need a balance of power.'

Furthermore, he said, 'I think all three sides, the Serbs in particular, have realised that what you gain militarily is virtually impossible to hold . . . Military action is a highly practical solution for the short term, but it's not a long-term answer.' In Sarajevo, the Western threat of air strikes was taken seriously by the Serbs. In Mostar, he said, the stick has been deployed against Croatia proper: the threat of economic sanctions, plus the carrots of improved trade with Europe, action on Krajina, the Serb-held area of Croatia and involvement in Nato's Partnership for Peace project. As for the Muslims, the choice is: 'To stay alone, exposed to the Serbian threat, or some kind of confederation with the Croats.'

Should the politicians decide to deal, the HVO in Mostar is likely to follow suit. It is now under the command of General Ante Roso, who has in the past few months crushed the wilder elements of his militia. According to Mr Vucic, it will now be a lot easier for the politicians to call the shots here.

Despite the truce, HVO commanders would not allow access to their front line, instead they offered journalists a view of no man's land from the old hospital. Crouched down in the dusty room, its walls pock-marked from bullets taken during the Serbian siege, Mr Vucic pointed out the landmarks: the burnt-out, sagging building on the east bank, once a department store, now home to Muslim snipers, and the office block, windows blown out, held by the Croats.

Any negotiated peace must still contend with strong emotions in the city. 'After everything that has happened here I can't see any way for Muslims and Croats to live together,' said Ante, a young soldier. Even those Muslims who have managed to keep their homes in west Mostar fear the future. 'I don't think peace will come. I'm afraid of the Croats here,' said Maja, 18, a Muslim who has seen school friends and relatives expelled to the east bank and who was afraid to give her real name. 'I don't think we can all live together because too many people have been killed.'