Would-be warlord abandons faithful

BALKAN TURMOIL : REBEL'S FATE; US diplomat sounds out Milosevic 8 Zagreb readies for offensive on south coast 8 Serbs deny key Bosnian town fell to Croats y News strap Book locked to grid strap Book locked top grid

Zagreb - These are refugees with no friends. More than 30,000 Muslims have been stranded, without aid, rejected by Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia alike, writes Sarah Helm. Their leader, Fikret Abdic, the Bosnian chicken farmer-come-Muslim warlord, apparently has abandoned them to the elements. Or worse.

Unconfirmed reports have Mr Abdic living it up in the Palace Hotel in Zagreb, forging new alliances with the Croat government. Furthermore, the UN and other agencies are being barred access to the Abdic refugees by the Croat authorities, on whose land they are stranded. The Croats say the area is too dangerous to visit, due to pockets of Serb fighters.

This latest and most bizarre refugee crisis is another tragic consequence of the Croat offensive to re-capture Serb-held Krajina, which led to the liberation of the Muslim enclave of Bihac, across the border in Bosnia. Fikret Abdic, who hails from the Bosnian town of Velka Kladusa, near Bihac, was once a wealthy entrepreneur who made his money "in chickens". After disagreements with Bosnian Muslim leaders early in the war, he recruited a rebel Muslim army, formed an alliance with Croatian Serbs and helped them in their attack on his fellow Muslims in Bihac. Once the Serb siege of Bihac was broken, Mr Abdic and his men took to the hills.

The whereabouts of Mr Abdic has been the subject of much speculation. He has been sighted in Belgrade and Zagreb. There are those in Zagreb who believe Croatia may be talking quietly to Mr Abdic, who could aid them in any bid to secure Croat influence in Bihac.

Meanwhile, Mr Abdic's followers, fearing vengeance from the Bihac Muslims, have crossed into Croatia, and have set up a makeshift camp south of Vojnic. According to the UN, the plight of the 30,000 is worsening by the day, with disease breaking out.

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