Tycoon Abdic bows out of Bihac fiefdom

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The Independent Online
THE BOSNIAN army yesterday crushed the 11-month rebellion in the self-declared 'Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia', the fiefdom in Bihac of the Muslim entrepreneur Fikret Abdic. But he managed to slip through the clutches of the government army and flee to Serb-held territory, the United Nations said. Earlier, Croatian television reported a rumour that he was hiding in a tunnel.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians fled from Velika Kladusa across the border into Serb-held Croatia as troops from the Fifth Corps, loyal to Sarajevo, swept through the town, the headquarters of Mr Abdic's Agrokomerc business empire. The spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Zagreb, Joran Bjallerstedt, said there were reports of up to 20,000 people on the road from Velika Kladusa to Karlovac in Croatia.

Peter Kessler, a UN aid official in Sarajevo, reported that between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees were trapped in no-man's-land near Turanj between the Serb-held Krajina in Croatia and Croatia proper. Zagreb had allowed only 50 ethnic Croats to cross, he added. Mr Kessler said the Krajina Serbs were trying to push people into the heavily-mined no- man's-land.

The government in Sarajevo, scenting victory, refused on Saturday to sign a UN-brokered agreement calling for an immediate ceasefire and the restoration of government rule. Part of the problem, said Mr Risley, was that 'the word 'surrender' was not used'. Mr Abdic appeared 'rather defiant' in Saturday's talks.

The fall of Mr Abdic will be a morale-booster for Sarajevo, and should free troops for the front lines against the Bosnian Serbs ranged south and east of Bihac. But the military importance of the government's victory - its first in the war - should not be over- stated: Mr Abdic's army cannot compare to the forces mustered by the Bosnian Serbs, and Sarajevo's soldiers face a much harder fight against the principal enemy.

The people of Velika Kladusa, who referred to Mr Abdic as 'Babo' (Daddy), have long held their master in awe, assuring everyone that he had only the interests of his people at heart. But their faith served them ill as the Abdic empire, defended by an army equipped with heavy weapons provided by the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia, crumbled.

The Sarajevo government has offered an amnesty to everyone but 'war criminals', a policy that might yet extend to Mr Abdic, a bitter political rival to President Alija Izetbegovic, and a man who has made deals with devils on all sides in the former Yugoslavia - Serb, Croat and Muslim. Mr Abdic, a leading Communist businessman and consummate politician, has had his ups and downs. He built Agrokomerc, a food-processing company, into the largest business in the region, was jailed for corruption in the 1980s, and served on the Bosnian presidency until September, when he broke with Mr Izetbegovic and made peace with the Bosnian Serbs. To Sarajevo, he is a traitor, motivated by profit, not patriotism.

For months, Mr Abdic had the upper hand. But in June, Zagreb, now in alliance with Sarajevo, was forced to abandon its old friend.