Muslims freed but squabbles keep Nato busy

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

Nato defused one source of tension in Bosnia yesterday by securing the release of 16 Muslims abducted by Serbs in Sarajevo, but fresh problems quickly arose in areas contested between the Muslims and Bosnian Croats.

Bosnian Serb authorities freed three Muslim men, all of whom bore marks of physical punishment, early in the day and several hours later released the remaining 13 from Kula jail, the main Bosnian Serb detention centre for prisoners of war.

In the southern city of Mostar, however, Bosnian Croat authorities announced they were imposing a tax on United Nations aid trucks travelling between Croat- and Muslim-controlled regions. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees instantly suspended all its convoys, saying such taxes were unacceptable.

Under the Dayton peace terms, signed last month, Muslims and Croats are united in a federation that occupies 51 per cent of Bosnia's territory, while the rest is in Serb hands. However, Bosnian Croat leaders in Mostar have tried to establish as close as possible a relationship with Croatia itself, a point underlined by the fact that the Bosnian Croat tax on UN trucks was denominated in kunas, Croatia's currency.

Relations between Muslims and Croats, never entirely free of tensions, got off to a bad start in 1996 after an 18-year-old Muslim man was shot dead on New Year's Eve by Bosnian Croat policemen in Mostar. The man, Alan Musovic, was killed at a checkpoint when he tried to cross a line separating the Bosnian Croat zone of control from the Muslim zone.

Mostar has remained divided into two national sectors despite clauses in the Dayton agreement that provide for full freedom of movement for civilians. The city is under nominal European Union administration, but Sarajevo radio, which speaks for Bosnia's Muslim-led government, said the man's death proved that the EU was "a silent and impotent witness of the terror and obstructive behaviour" of the Bosnian Croats.

More trouble broke out in Mostar on Wednesday night when Muslim youths stoned Croatian-registered cars on a ruined boulevard that marks a dividing line between the Croat and Muslim sectors. Leaders of the two communities, who fought a bitter war in 1993, have also failed to resolve differences over how to repair a dam above Mostar that was damaged by floods in late December.

The release of the Muslims in Sarajevo followed an appeal from the United States to President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who demonstrated his influence over the Bosnian Serbs by negotiating the Dayton settlement on their behalf. The Muslims were seized as they travelled through the rebel Serb district of Ilidza, whose residents are angry because the peace agreement stipulates that their area is to be turned over to Muslim-Croat control.

The first three Muslims to be freed said their captors had taunted them with remarks such as "Turks, it is too early for you to walk around Ilidza". One Muslim had a bruised face and a swollen nose, the result of a police beating.

Several others, however, said they had been surprised at the good treatment they had received in the Bosnian Serb prison.

The abductions were an embarrassment to Nato as the Muslim-led government cited them as proof that the alliance's peace implementation force was incapable of protecting civilians. Nato suggested at first that the abductions were not its responsibility but that of civilian law-enforcement bodies. In the end, the Serbs handed over the captives to Nato troops from France.