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Shootings Threaten Frail Muslim-Croat Alliance In Mostar

Mon., Jan. 8, 1996

With NATO troops and armor patrolling the streets, Mostar’s European Union administrator warned Sunday that Bosnia’s fragile peace plan will collapse if Muslims and Croats cannot come together in this battered town.

Elsewhere in Bosnia, NATO’s patience began to wear thin as its troops came under fire for the fifth time over the weekend. No one was hurt, but the alliance warned that it will blast back with increasing might.

In Mostar, two killings and a surge in shooting have put the city on edge and could doom efforts to reunite the town - the scene of bitter fighting in the Muslim-Croat war within a war in 1993-94.

A failure in Mostar would undermine the already weak Muslim-Croat federation, which was awarded 51 percent of Bosnia under the U.S.-brokered peace deal signed in Paris Dec. 14.

“If there’s no answer for Mostar, there will be no answer for the federation, and there will be no balance against the third side, the Serbian side,” said Hans Koschnick of Germany, who administers Mostar for the EU.

“That would mean a new crisis.”

The federation is the cornerstone of the peace plan and was designed by the Americans to counterbalance the Serbs. If the Muslim-Croat alliance collapses, the Bosnian Serbs will not feel bound by the Paris accord.

The Croats in the western part of the country, a region known as Herzegovina, claim support from Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. They have long tried to make Mostar the capital of their self-styled Herzeg Bosna republic.

Mostar, meanwhile, has groped for normalcy. On Dec. 1, residents began testing peace by crossing the Neretva River that splits the town via a temporary bridge, which replaced one destroyed in the war.

But after a young Muslim and a Croat policeman were killed and two Muslim policemen wounded, Koschnick on Saturday called on the NATO-led force monitoring Bosnia’s peace to reinforce the 180 European police in Mostar.

Spanish soldiers and six armored vehicles were deployed along the Boulevard, Mostar’s main thoroughfare, marking the Croat-Muslim front line between jagged shells of houses, bared to the brick by artillery fire.

Koschnick wrote to officials on both sides warning he would ban movement between the two halves of the city unless there was a “drastic, immediate improvement.”

Things began unraveling in the early hours of New Year’s Day. Alen Mustovic, a 17-year-old Muslim, drove to Croat territory to visit his Croat girlfriend. He failed to stop at Croat police checkpoints and was shot dead.

Three days later, two Muslim policemen were wounded by sniper fire from the Croat west bank. Then on Saturday, Croat policeman Zeljko Ljubic was shot dead while patrolling the Boulevard. EU police said the gunfire came from the Muslim east bank.

Although things were generally quiet in Mostar on Sunday, British soldiers escorting a Dutch military convoy near the central Bosnian town of Vitez, 50 miles northwest of Sarajevo, came under fire from unidentified gunmen.

Six shots were fired at a British vehicle by a passing civilian car. British soldiers returned fire with an SA-80 assault rifle, IFOR spokesman Lt. Col. David Shaw said.

At least one bullet hit the car but no casualties were reported, Shaw said.

In Mostar, the rash of shootings has put the city on edge. Koschnick said it hadn’t felt so tense since he arrived in May 1994, and residents’ moods seemed equally black.

“It was murder,” said Lucija Markotic, 50, a Croat at Ljubic’s funeral Sunday. “How can we believe in peace when these things happen?”

At the burial, 500 mourners sang the Croatian national anthem.

“If they had not shot the 17-year-old kid, things would have been just fine,” said Mujo Demic, 45, a caretaker in Muslim Mostar. “The problem is (that) about 15 to 20 extremists on the Croatian side provoke … and make people afraid and suspicious.”


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