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Bosnian army takes control in rebel pocket

The government's victory ends an 11-month attempt by secessionist Muslims to set up an autonomous province

SUCH scenes have haunted the world since the Yugoslav tragedy began: crowds of refugees camped in disoriented misery along roads or in fields beside piles of whatever could be carried in their panic-filled flight.

But there is a startling contrast between any earlier exodus and the men, women, and children who have poured out of Bosnia-Herzegovina's northwesternmost corner - they are Muslims fleeing fellow Muslims.

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The largest Bosnian refugee movement in more than a year was triggered Aug. 21 by the fall to the Muslim-led Bosnian Army's Fifth Corps of Velika Kladusa, the stronghold of Muslim rebel leader and business tycoon Fikret Abdic.

The victory ended Mr. Abdic's 11-month-old attempt to set up an autonomous province in the Cazinska Krajina region. Known as the ``Bihac Pocket,'' the Muslim enclave is surrounded by territories held by the Bosnian Serbs and their brethren in Croatia.

Abdic's break

A former Bosnian presidency member, Abdic broke with Sarajevo over its decision to continue the war. He declared the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia in Cazinska Krajina and signed peace deals with the Bosnian Serbs and the Krajina Serbs.

Using the resources of Agrokomerc, the Velika Kladusa-based food-processing conglomerate he headed, Abdic negotiated trading agreements under which he sold to the Serbs and his own people food, fuel, and other goods he imported from Croatia.

Abdic, who the Sarajevo government wants to try on war crimes charges, fled with an estimated 25,000 people - about half the population of his part of the enclave - across the border into the rebel Serb-held Krajina region of Croatia.

More than 15,000 refugees are now sheltering in the stiffling, filth-encrusted sheds of a dilapidated chicken farm or under makeshift tents and lean-tos in surrounding fields in Batnoga, a Krajina Serb hamlet of 15,000 just five miles west of Velika Kladusa.

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More than 6,000 others are camping in a field several miles to the north. Another 3,000 in cars, trucks, and horse carts cram a road in the United Nations-policed cease-fire zone between Krajina Serb and Croatian forces, 40 miles south of Zagreb.

Croatia, already burdened by 380,000 refugees, refuses to admit more. Sarajevo is appealing to the refugees to return home, promising safety and an amnesty for rebel troops until Aug. 24.

But the refugees appear totally convinced by the propaganda Abdic's radio station pumped out until Velika Kladusa's fall.

``All the Fifth Corps can do is shoot people and burn homes. People don't want to live under the Fifth Corps. Everybody believes they are Muslim fundamentalists,'' says Vahidin Ogresavic, a young refugee in Batnoga.

``They shout `Allah Akbar' [God is Great] when they go into battle,'' Mr. Ogresavic says.

``The Fifth Corps is a thieving criminal gang. It is looting and burning, and killing civilians,'' claims Sead Kajtezovic, Abdic's brother-in-law, who was trying to organize the refugees.

Westerners who witnessed the town's capture, however, say only four people were killed, and order quickly restored.

``The Fifth Corps went in around 4:30 a.m. and met with minimum resistance, took over the jail and released their own prisoners, and then took over the town,'' photographer Robert Nicklesberg says. ``About six shops were looted and that's about all.

Abdic's followers flee

``By 11:30 a.m., the fighting was over. The Fifth Corps put in civilian police and withdrew their troops,'' Mr. Nickelsberg says. ``Most of the town's population fled, but there was no reason for it. It was complete information control by Abdic and rumors that if they left, people could find a way abroad.''

Nickelsberg says that the refugee exodus has left Velika Kladusa virtually empty.

UN officials say that since French UN troops and UN military observers were confined to their bases during the takeover, they have yet to fully assess the situation. But they doubt the refugees' fears are justified.

``There has been looting,'' says one UN official contacted by telephone at the UN headquarters near Bihac. ``But local people we have talked to say they were not subject to any mistreatment.''

Aid workers ``have seen some dead bodies in front of homes that indicate there have been some killings. But there is a question as to the extent to which the Fifth Corps would commit such acts,'' he says.

Pro-Abdic soldiers handed over their arms, including six World War II-vintage, Soviet-built T-35 tanks, to the Krajina Serbs before joining the refugees flocking across the border.

At a Krajina Serb military base on the frontier, Serbian soldiers were seen standing over a huge pile of assault rifles and other military detritus turned over by Abdic's fleeing troops.

Relief agencies are now gearing up at Batnoga to relieve water and food shortages. Polish UN troops are lending a hand, delivering water in tanker trucks, digging massive latrines, and setting up a field hospital for dozens of sick and injured.

``This is not our mandate,'' Polish Capt. Victor Mikolajec says wearily. ``You just try to do something to help these people.''

Abdic's defeat ended one of the most bizarre chapters of the 29-month-old Bosnia conflict and a major embarrassment for the Sarajevo government.

President Alija Izetbegovic condemned Abdic as a traitor and ordered him crushed by the Fifth Corps, which is based in Bihac, the main town of the 200,000-strong Cazinska Krajina enclave.

Fighting erupted inside the pocket, with the tide turning two weeks ago when the Fifth Corps killed Adbic's leading commander in a breakthrough toward Velika Kladusa that led to the collapse of Abdic's forces.

UN officials tried to mediate between the two sides, but the talks ended Aug. 20 when Abdic refused to withdraw his autonomy declaration. That prompted the final Fifth Corps assault on his stronghold.

The defeat seemed not to have dented the refugees' faith in Abdic, who they affectionately call ``Babo,'' a nickname meaning ``father.'' And it has fueled their propaganda-fed disdain for President Izetbegovic and the government in distant Sarajevo.

``This pocket is surrounded. In all these years of war, Alija Izetbegovic did not come to see how people were living and how conditions were,'' complains Senad Huskic, a youthful pro-Abdic soldier.

``Alija Izetbegovic is not the president for these people. Why has he done this to them? The government and the politics of Alija Izetbegovic do not allow people to think independently. They want everyone to think the way they do,'' Mr. Huskic says.

``The Fifth Corps did all these things because people in the pocket did not agree with the politics of Alija Izetbegovic,'' says Mehmed Cusovic, an Agrokomerc worker who know lives with his wife and three children on a dirty blanket in a chicken farm.

``Alija Izetbegovic is the biggest Muslim fundamentalist. Fikret Abdic is the best economist and the smartest man,'' Mr. Cusovic says.

One thing is certain: Sarajevo's victory does little to resolve this pocket's fate.

The Krajina Serbs have for months blocked UN aid shipments into the enclave, where food supplies are low, and UN airdrops of relief supplies were suspended last week after aircraft were fired on.

Fighting may increase

Furthermore, with Abdic gone, fighting between the Fifth Corps and the Bosnian Serbs will almost inevitably increase.

Under such circumstances, it seems unlikely that the refugees can be enticed to return home.

``These people don't know about their future,'' says Mr. Ogresavic. ``They want food, They want water. For them, the future is far away.''

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