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Croat Troops Mutiny

Tension mounts in Bosnia as Croat officers leave the Federation army
By Amra Kebo

Bosnian Croat nationalists raised the stakes this week in their campaign to set-up a separate mini-state in Bosnia, when


an exclusively Croat unit in the Federation's military forces, VF, refused to recognise the army's joint command.


The move heralds the formation of a separate Bosnian Croat army. The new force is estimated to number between 7,000 and 11,000 soldiers. Ministry of defence documents, which would have provided more accurate figures, disappeared on the day the former Federation minister of defence, Miroslav Prce, resigned.


The creation of an independent Bosnian Croat army coincides with a scaling-down of the United State's presence in the country. Washington is to withdraw 800 troops from Bosnia in the near future.


Despite the rising tension, the international Stabilisation Force, S-For, has so far failed to take any concrete steps to counter the Croat move.


The Croatian National Assembly is seeking to set up self-rule in two Croat dominated cantons in Herzegovina and three majority-Croat cantons elsewhere in Bosnia. The assembly has asked for customs revenue to be redirected to fund the mini-state.


The High Representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, responded to the March 3 declaration by dismissing Ante Jelavic from the leadership of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and the tripartite presidency. He and three other HDZ officials were also banned from any future political activity.


The HDZ is furious at the election of a moderate government in the Federation and at Bosnian state level. The Federation's new government took over on March 13, despite a four-month-long boycott by the HDZ.


Made up of the ten-party Alliance for Change, no representatives from the HDZ or the Bosniak nationalist Party for Democratic Action are included in the new administration.


On March 5, Jelavic warned, "I'll never allow the HVO [Croatian Defence Force] to fall under the command of the Alliance." That day, the then Federation minister of defence, Miroslav Prce, announced HVO units were to disband, thereby ending their subordination to the military's joint command. Prce ordered units to remove Federation insignia from their uniforms.


On taking over at the defence ministry, Anic immediately cancelled Prce's orders and asked soldiers to remain in their units. S-For deputy commander, British Major General Robert Dannatt, congratulated Anic and promised the international force would prevent "any attempt on part of Croatian National Assembly to draw the Croat component of Federation Army into the political arena".


Nevertheless, VF deputy commander Dragan Curcic and seven other Croat officers resigned. Curcic was replaced by Ivo Lozancic, vice-president of New Croat Initiative party and a member of the Alliance for Change coalition. This prompted a further 15 Croat officers to announce they would not recognise Lozancic as their commander. The next day the First Guard Corps mutinied.


It appears the HDZ has planned developments well. So far it has kept one step ahead of the international community and the Federation authorities.


The First Guard Corps has all the necessary components for an army. It is made up of four professional brigades - based in Drvar, Jasenica, Vitez and Orasje. Each brigade has army reserves and coordinates activity outside the VF.


On March 20, the commander of the First Guard Corps, Zlatan Mijo Jelic, said the entire force was in support of the Croatian National Assembly and would no longer obey VF joint command orders. Jelic showed the supporting signatures of 51 of the corps' officers.


"So far 80 to 90 per cent of Croatian officers have left the VF joint command and the ministry of defence, and I now call upon others to do the same," Jelic said.


Jelic added, however, that the force would continue to cooperate with international organisations and S-For, although he failed to explain how this would be possible given his officers were in breach of the Dayton agreement, which S-For is in Bosnia to maintain.


On March 22, Dannatt said, "A Bosnian Croat armed force outside the Federation structure is not permitted under Dayton. I...strongly urge anyone considering any form of anti-Dayton military activity to abandon it immediately."


Lozancic admitted on March 20 that he had lost control over troops in the south of the country. Anic issued a five-day deadline for officers to return to work or lose their jobs. By Thursday, Anic said the situation was improving with some officers returning to work.


In an effort to pre-empt similar problems with the police, the Federation's new interior minister, Muhamed Besic, and the chief of the international police force, UN-IPTF, Vincent Courderoy, sent letters to cantonal police chiefs on March 15 giving precise instructions as to what action to take against anti-constitutional activity.


Police officers were reminded they are under oath and that any evidence of political activity would result in immediate dismissal.


Nevertheless, on March 21 Croat police officers in Bosniak-majority municipalities received letters calling on them to leave their jobs. Besic said few responded to the call and police work was continuing undisrupted.


But unofficial sources claim senior Croats at the Federation ministry of interior will be the first to walk out and that a parallel police force is being set up.


On March 16, in Sarajevo a small force of 50 guards in black uniforms, armed with light weapons, escorted Jelavic and other HDZ officials at a memorial mass for Jozo Leutar, the former Federation minister of interior murdered last year. Several "stewards" were also bussed from Herzegovina for the event.


A large contingent of Sarajevo police officers were sent to the church, but the event passed off without incident.


Nonetheless, the appearance of an unofficial armed "police" force and the insubordination of the First Guard Corps bring back worrying memories of 1991, when the Serbian Democratic Party engineered a split in the country's security forces along national lines. War came soon after.


Ten years on, and the situation differs in one important respect - there are 22,000 S-For troops stationed in Bosnia. Dannatt said the international force was monitoring developments closely, especially in specific VF arms dumps.


"Everyone knows that should anyone make any unauthorised step towards these warehouses, we shall be very quick to react," Dannett said.


The Peace Implementation Council lent its full support to Petritsch for his swift action against Croat officials and army officers. The Council condemned any move to set up Croat self-rule.


But concrete steps need to be taken at once to prevent the situation deteriorating further.


Petritsch is likely to block an HDZ bank account held at Hercegovacka Banka in Mostar . It's thought to contain 54 million German marks.


Petritsch said in a newspaper interview that he thought the Croat move had been planned over several months - and that money had been deposited in the account to pay the wages of officials, army and police officers in the first months of the new "entity".


Events are unfolding fast and tension is high. Not since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord has Bosnia been so shaken. All eyes are on the international community.


Amra Kebo is a regular IWPR contributor.


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