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Croat Separatist Bid Foiled

Deft political tactics by Bosnian Federation leaders foil hard-line Croat bid for independence.

The collapse of a military mutiny seems to have wrecked the plans of hard-line Croatian nationalists to carve out an independent statelet in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Diplomatic and political experts believe the Croat separatists had been dealt a decisive blow when two renegade officers who led a month-long walkout from the forces of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation repented and returned to the federal fold.

The two officers, General Zlatan Mijo Jelic and Brigadier Mario Bradar, delivered a pledge of loyalty to federal defence minister Mijo Anic two weeks ago, leaving the ultra-nationalist Croat Democratic Union, HDZ, seemingly floundering in disarray.

The HDZ had masterminded a walkout by the sizeable part of the Croat contingent from the forces of the Federation.

Last Autumn, several small Bosnian Croat nationalist parties joined up with the HDZ to form the Croat National Council, an illegal body designed to repudiate the rule of Federation institutions in Croat areas. When this produced no major impact on the country's financial, economic and political systems, the HDZ launched its drive to split the Federation's armed forces.

Every officer and soldier defecting from the federal forces was promised 500 German marks a month, a large sum for the region. Croat soldiers who declined the offer were threatened by HDZ strong-arm tactics. Faced with this, a sizeable portion of the army's Croat troops walked out of barracks and went home.

Anic, a member of the moderate New Croat Initiative party, NHI, was then new to his job as defence minister. In an effort to counter the HDZ's attempts to prize away Croat soldiers, he swiftly offered attractive new contracts to officers and men.

Officers and troops from the northern Posavina and central Bosnian region were the first to sign, followed by men from Hercegovina, the Croat nationalist heartland.

Before long, some 3,000 ethnic Croat soldiers opted to stay loyal to the Federation. By a coincidence, this was the number of troops allocated to the army's Croat component under a military manpower reduction plan.

Meanwhile, the defectors, to their dismay, found themselves surplus to requirements, out of a job and with no prospects of collecting the monthly pay packet of 500 marks promised by the HDZ. The party's funds in the Hercegovacka Banka in Mostar had been blocked by western auditors, following NATO-led peacekeepers' raid on the bank.

As panic spread among the jobless defectors, Anic came up with another offer. He called on them to enlist in a World Bank project for the training and re-education of demobilised troops. Those soldiers who stayed loyal to HDZ extremists would not be eligible for the programme.

In addition, Western diplomats started contemplating the possible arrest of HDZ leader Ante Jelavic and some of his aides. The defence ministry filled suites against Jelavic, former federal defence minister Miroslav Prce and the former deputy chief of staff in the Federation army, General Dragan Curcic.

Out of funds and in danger of arrest, HDZ leaders appealed for help to international authorities who politely told them to take up their case with the regular entity and state institutions.

HDZ leaders soon started quarrelling among themselves. Sources close to hard-liners in the party reported widening rifts between its different wings and their smaller allies.

"Personal interests inside the HDZ are persuading members to return to the language of compromise and pragmatism," said Petar Milic, leader of the Croat Demo-Christians, a member of the Croat National Council, in a recent newspaper interview. It was in this climate that Jelic and Bradar switched their loyalty to the Federation authorities on May 16.

Jelic, who on numerous previous occasions had flouted the authority and legitimacy of the Federation defence ministry, declared, "From now on, I acknowledge Mijo Anic as my minister of defence".

In a forlorn attempt to salvage his cause, Jelavic told a press conference that the Croat National Council will decide the fate of Bosnian Croat soldiers. He said he "was not afraid of arrest either by Federal police or S-FOR".

By resolving the crisis, the new government of non-nationalist parties centred around the Alliance for Change appear to have defeated the strongest challenge posed by the HDZ since its defeat in the November elections.

However, HDZ hard-liners will not easily accept defeat. Another drive to attain independence cannot be ruled out. The question is whether the international community and the new government will let them get away with it.

Zvonimir Jukic is a Mostar correspondent for the Sarajevo news agency Onasa...........