Zagreb peace deal a token Croat gesture: Serbs find themselves isolated as the international community runs out of patience and steps up efforts to halt fighting in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
BOSNIAN Muslim and Croat leaders meeting under the umbrella of Lord Owen produced a fine-sounding communique at the weekend in Zagreb, designed to stamp out the war spreading like a bush fire between Croats and Muslims in central Bosnia.

'It must be clear to everyone that the latest clash between the Bosnian army and Bosnian Croat forces is playing into the hands of our common enemy,' a front-page editorial in the pro-government Zagreb daily, Vjesnik, concluded. The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, made a similar statement.

But the announcement of a ceasefire, a joint co-ordination committee and joint Muslim-Croat military patrols in the hot-spots, is unlikely to halt the struggle for control over this strategically crucial region.

Mr Izetbegovic counts for very little outside his besieged capital, Sarajevo. Cut off from Bosnia for more than a year, Sarajevo is now just a symbolic capital, a kind of Bosnian West Berlin, before the wall came down. The power centres in Muslim-held Bosnia are now Zenica and Tuzla, cities where local military and political leaders work to an agenda that only sometimes coincides with the plans of Mr Izetbegovic.

Tens of thousands of 'ethnically cleansed' refugees from Serb-held Bosnia have streamed into both cities, doubling the local populations and radicalising local politics. Tuzla's 130,000 have swelled to 230,000 in less than a year. The city is on target to outstrip Sarajevo as Bosnia's most populous city.

To restore peace in central Bosnia depends not on Sarajevo, but on Zenica, the largest city in the region, one firmly held by Muslims. But Zenica's leadership has denounced the ceasefire agreement as a sell-out and declared that Bosnian Croat forces will be treated as illegal paramilitaries.

The Serbs pose a distant threat to Zenica and are too well armed to present a feasible target. The Croat-held towns to the south are a more tempting prize, nearer and militarily weaker than the Serbs. Local Croats have only a wafer-thin majority over Muslims in the region.

A British officer serving in the United Nations forces in the town of Vitez, in central Bosnia, said it was a big mistake to think that Bosnian Muslims would attack the Serbs first, if the arms embargo were lifted. 'They are more likely to go for the weakest target, the Croat towns in central Bosnia,' he said.

The war in Bosnia is a ground war. Most of the battles are for control of vital roads. Croatian control over central Bosnia depends on keeping hold of the main road that runs from Travnik through Vitez and Busovaca to Kiseljak. Their hold on this route has become shaky recently.

The Muslims have cut the road between Vitez and Busovaca and around Kiseljak in several places. These two towns are close to being cut off by the Muslims. Muslim forces have at the same time routed Croats in Zenica and Travnik, the two largest towns in central Bosnia. Further south, the Muslims have barred Bosnian Croat forces from Konjic and Jablanica. These two towns control the north-south road that leads from central Bosnia to the Adriatic coast.

The Croats fear the Muslims, after losing northern and eastern Bosnia to the Serbs, will try to compensate their losses by taking central Bosnia from them.

Fearing encirclement in central Bosnia, the Croats are attacking key Muslim villages behind their lines. East of the town of Prozor they are driving a corridor across Muslim-held territory in the mountains. Their goal is to forge a new route from the Croatian coast into the heart of Bosnia that will by-pass the roads blocked by the Muslims.

Even if the Croats win this battle to open up a new road into central Bosnia, in the end they may have to rein in their ambitions. Faced with the growing strength of the Muslim forces, the Croats will most likely have to reduce the size of the territory they claim for 'Herzeg-Bosna', the Croatian state inside Bosnia. If they do not want to do that they will have to accept a closer relationship with the Muslim-held cities of the centre.