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Bosnian Leaders Rebuff President With Decision to Negotiate Partition

Move may force Izetbegovic to break with Muslim hard-liners

A MAJORITY of the collective Bosnian presidency revolted June 23 against its Muslim chairman, President Alija Izetbegovic, voting to participate in talks on a Serb-Croat peace proposal for an ethnic partition of the former Yugoslav republic. The 7-2 decision threw the beleaguered Bosnian government into a crisis that left Mr. Izetbegovic's political future uncertain; the presidency majority has the power to oust him.

The revolt was led by Fikret Abdic, a Muslim member. He joined the two Croatian and three loyalist Serbian collective presidency members in voting to accept an invitation from international mediators Lord David Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg to join Serbian and Croatian leaders at talks in Geneva June 23.

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Izetbegovic and Vice President Ejup Ganic, both Muslims, opposed participation and were to return to Sarajevo. In a move some observers say is meant to control the damage to the presidency's unity, the delegation will only consult with the Serbian and Croatian teams and then return to Sarajevo for further discussions.

But that provision could not mask deep divisions in the presidency - most apparent between Izetbegovic and Mr. Abdic.

"I was not elected to sign the death of my own country," Mr. Ganic said of the partition plan. "We will continue to fight. It will be a Lebanon."

Izetbegovic vehemently opposes the Serb-Croat proposal to partition Bosnia into a confederation of Muslim, Orthodox Serb, and Roman Catholic Croat "mini-states." He contends it is a cover for the division of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia and will confine Muslims, the largest ethnic group, to a tiny share of territory.

The idea was unveiled last week by Presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, the main patrons of the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats, to replace the scrapped international peace plan known as Vance-Owen.

That plan would have divided Bosnia into 10 semi-autonomous provinces. But the Bosnian Serbs rejected it in May and the international community failed to follow through with threats to impose it militarily. The European Community abandoned the plan June 22.

The Bosnian Serbs demand their own state, which they have declared in the 70 percent of Bosnia they control. They seek ultimately to merge with Serb areas of Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro in a "Greater Serbia."

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Bosnian Croat leaders also have declared autonomy in the territories they control, strengthening charges that Zagreb and Belgrade have a secret agreement to dismember Bosnia.

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his Bosnian Croat counterpart, Mate Boban, reportedly agreed June 21 to award the Bosnian Muslims 30 municipalities and the region around the northwestern city of Bihac.

THAT is where Abdic enters. The chief political figure of the region, known as Cazinska Krajina, Abdic denied his break with Izetbegovic meant that the majority of the presidency would accept the Karadzic-Boban idea. But he argued Izetbegovic had no right to shut the door on talks.

"The situation on the ground dictates the tempo at which the crisis will be resolved," he said. "In principle, I will not reject any plan that will bring peace."

"The question is: Will this plan bring peace?" Abdic continued.

The dispute appears to be rooted in personal and political differences between Abdic and Izetbegovic. Since August, Abdic has been absent from Sarajevo, remaining in Cazinska Krajina, an almost purely Muslim enclave where he runs Agrocommerce, a massive state-owned agricultural wholesale conglomerate.

The firm has continued to flourish despite the war, prompting allegations that Abdic has turned it into his private concern and deals with anyone, including the Bosnian Serbs.

Abdic's critics charge he broke with Izetbegovic as part of a deal with Croatian President Tudjman to make Cazinska Krajina one of two halves of the Muslim "mini-state," thereby preserving his power and prosperity.

"He is basically very ambitious," says Gordana Knezavic, acting editor-in-chief of Oslobodjenje, Sarajevo's main newspaper. "His main concern is for his company to operate. For his company to operate, he needs peace."

Abdic vehemently denies such charges. "It's my right and my duty to say what is necessary, and I believe we should negotiate." He accuses Izetbegovic, who has used emergency war powers to rule by decree, of making unilateral decisions. Some analysts agree with Abdic. They say his main goal is to pressure Izetbegovic in order to break with Muslim hard-liners who advocate a military resolution to the crisis.

"This must be done because Izetbegovic cannot continue his politics," says Muhamet Filipovic, a member of Bosnia's first delegation to Geneva.

Jela Jevremovic, a former Sarajevo-based journalist, says Abdic does not favor the Serb-Croat partition plan, but simply wants to buy time for a reconciliation with the Bosnian Croats.

"He doesn't want to get rid of Alija," she said. "He wants to squeeze him and get him away from the [Muslim] extremists."

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