ZAGREB, CROATIA — EARLIER this month, police in the port city of Rijeka rounded up 18 Bosnian Muslim employees of a local company and told them they were being expelled from Croatia.
The men were escorted aboard a ferry bound for the central Adriatic port of Split, from where they were to have been taken to the nearby border of their war-ravaged homeland.
But the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) received a tip-off and sent a fieldworker to meet the ferry when it docked. The UN officer took the men under his protection and placed them in a refugee camp.
UN officials say the case is one of a growing number of incidents that are fueling concerns of a backlash against Bosnian Muslims in Croatia. Ever since Bosnian Croat attacks triggered fighting in central Bosnia in March, and Bosnian Muslims responded with a vigorous offensive, Muslims living in Croatia have experienced harassment.
"This incident is alarming," says UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler. UN sources say other cases include:
* Evictions of Bosnian Muslims from state refugee centers.
* Police harassment of Bosnian Muslim refugees.
* The forced conscription of 13 Bosnian Muslim refugees in the Croatian Army.
* The disappearance from a suburban Zagreb police station of "a lot" of Bosnian Muslim refugees, who were later forced to join a militia in the Bosnian Croat stronghold of Tomislavgrad.
"It will get worse," predicts a UN official.
Muslim Slavs make up about 80 percent of the more than 250,000 refugees from Bosnia now being sheltered in Croatia. Another estimated 100,000 Bosnian Muslims lived in Croatia while it was part of former Yugoslavia and became citizens after it gained independence.
Croatian officials concede that Bosnian Muslims could be at risk as the Bosnian Army presses an offensive that has uprooted an estimated 60,000 Bosnian Croats and seen atrocities committed by both sides.
"I cannot say what will happen in the future," says Adalbert Rebic, the head of Croatia's refugee office. "They are safe for now, and I hope there will be no reaction."
But in interviews refugees and citizens recount experiences of discrimination and harassment. They say they are terrified that they could eventually be expelled from Croatia and forced to return to the small amount of territory controlled by the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
"It is different than it used to be," said a woman named Najla, who has been living in a former workers' hostel in Zagreb since she was driven from her home in the northern Bosnian town of Kotor Varos by Bosnian Serb "ethnic cleansing" in May 1992. "There is talk that they are going to ask us to leave," she says, declining to give her full name. "The government has not said anything, but on the trams and buses they say things."
"They tell us we should not wear our [traditional Muslim] head scarves, that we should take off our Muslim uniforms," she adds. "How can you not be scared? You are in somebody else's country."
"There has been an increase in complaints of harassment since the fighting began," says Sevko Omarbasic, who has been Croatia's chief Islamic cleric for 20 years. He adds that many Bosnian Muslim refugees are seeking his help in obtaining exit visas.
"I had four cases this morning who said they want to leave Croatia because they feel insecure walking on the street," he says. "People want to leave before something happens."
The cleric stresses that there is no official policy of discrimination by the regime of President Franjo Tudjman.
"Croatia is probably the most generous asylum country in Europe," agrees the UN's Kessler, reiterating that it also hosts more than 260,000 Croatian refugees both from Bosnia and the 35 percent of its own territory overrun by Serb rebels in the 1991 war.
But some Croats conceded that ordinary people are becoming increasingly hostile toward the Bosnian Muslims.
"If the war against the [Bosnian] Croats continues, it might cause real problems," says taxi driver Danko Smiljanic.
Popular resentment, refugees and UN officials say, has been fueled by vicious propaganda and one-sided reporting by state-run Zagreb television. The television fails to mention that it was weeks of Bosnian Croat attacks and ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims that eventually led to the Bosnian Army offensive, the officials and refugees say.
And it has labeled Bosnian Muslims as "holy warriors" and "fundamentalists" intent on creating an Islamic state.
Some senior Croatian officials have also added to the Bosnian Muslims' insecurity. Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Seks, a hard-line nationalist, said on television this month that if the Bosnian offensive did not halt, Zagreb might have to "reconsider" its refugee policy.
But in a Monitor interview, Mr. Seks denied any change. He said he has ordered "the ministries to prevent all negative reactions that might result from what is happening in Bosnia."
His claim brought a snort of derision from Sabar, a Muslim Slav from the central Bosnian town of Konjic who has lived in Zagreb for 25 years and is now a Croatian citizen.
Speaking on condition that his real name be withheld, Sabar says he and 15 other Bosnian Muslim citizens employed at the Croatian Defense Ministry cafeteria were dismissed last week.
At the same time, Croatian workers were given new contracts, Sabar says, showing a dismissal notice signed by Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak.
He says he was told by an Army officer that he was being fired because of "the situation in Bosnia," and that another officer told him that "I am worse than the Serbs." No Defense Ministry reaction was available.