Bosnia's Army Takes On Breakaway Muslim Forces

Conflict pits Sarajevo regime against free-wheeling rebel leader

FROM the hilltop fortress he makes his headquarters, Fikret Abdic can look down on his tiny domain like the Ottoman agas who once ruled there.

But the Muslim business tycoon and former Bosnian presidency member can draw little comfort these days from the sweeping vista the castle affords of sun-drenched fields and wooded mountains.

Just over the horizon, the Bosnian Army is making a bid to crush Mr. Abdic and rebel troops who joined him last September when he declared the Muslim-dominated Cazinska Krajina region an autonomous province and made peace with the surrounding Serbs.

The inter-Muslim fighting in the enclave in Bosnia's northwest corner has been some of the heaviest anywhere in the republic since the May 28 one-month truce between the Bosnian Serbs and the new Muslim-Croat federation.

``The Sarajevo government is using the cease-fire with the Serbs to finish this business,'' says Mehmed Kostic, Abdic's chief aide. Abdic declined repeated requests for an interview.

An estimated 100 people have been killed, hundreds wounded, and 300 families left homeless since the Bosnian Army's Fifth Corps, which controls the southern three-fourths of the enclave, opened its offensive against Abdic's forces on June 11.

United Nations officials say Abdic's troops are receiving arms and other support from rebel Serbs holding adjacent territory in Croatia. For them, Abdic is a crucial source of trade in goods worth millions of dollars.

The Serbs are also blocking the only route into the enclave for UN food convoys from Zagreb, on which more than 50,000 people depend. UN officials say aid stocks will run out this week.

Sarajevo's troops are now poised around Pecigrad, a village controlling the main road to Abdic's stronghold of Velika Kladusa. ``They pulled all their forces from the line with the Bosnian Serbs and hurled them against us,'' says Nevdzad Dzeric, commander of Pecigrad's defense.

Most Western diplomats and UN officials see the fighting as little more than a tragic sideshow in which Sarajevo is trying to stamp out an embarrassing internal political challenger. Abdic, a UN official says, ``distracts from Sarajevo's main effort. That means in the first instance a bellicose posture toward the Serbs and not separate politics.''

But others fear the fighting could pose new problems for peacemaking as the United States, European Union, and Russia finalize a territorial partition plan that will no doubt award Cazinska Krajina to Sarajevo.

There is also potential for outright intervention on Abdic's side by Croatia's rebel Serbs. Croatian Serb leaders need Abdic, these observers say, as a buffer between them and the Fifth Corps.

BUT Serbian intervention would pose a challenge to the world community because Cazinska Krajina was designated a UN Protected Area defendable by NATO airstrikes.

The inter-Muslim fighting has been one of the more bizarre and tragic chapters of the more than two-year Bosnian war.

With a population of 200,000, 98 percent Muslim, the region is known as the ``Bihac pocket'' and is under Fifth Corps control. It is bounded on the north and west by rebel Serb-held areas of Croatia and on the east by the Bosnian Serbs.

Abdic won fame by bringing prosperity to the enclave by building its main employer, food-processing giant Agrokomerc, into one of former Yugoslavia's biggest state-owned enterprises.

He was elected in 1990 to one of three Muslim seats on Bosnia's collective presidency, but fell out with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in mid-1992 over continuing the war against the more powerful Serbs.

In declaring his ``Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia,'' Abdic labeled Mr. Izetbegovic a Muslim fundamentalist who was sacrificing the country's people in a futile fight for an Islamic state. He vowed to bring his enclave peace and normalcy by restarting Agrokomerc and trading with all. He was encouraged by Serbia and Croatia, which were still backing Bosnian Croat extremists fighting to carve off a piece of Bosnia.

Sarajevo branded Abdic a traitorous megalomaniac who coveted Cazinska Krajina and Agrokomerc as personal fiefdoms from which to preside over massive war-profiteering.

Parts of the Fifth Corps deserted to Abdic, but most obeyed Sarajevo's order to move against him. The feud was low-key as the Fifth Corps concentrated on defending its territory against Bosnian Serb attacks.

The 143,000 people in the southern part of the enclave suffered bombardments and food shortages, while the north's 49,000 residents enjoyed peace and went back to farming. Abdic, meanwhile, returned to big business. He negotiated arrangements in which Croatia let him import food, fuel, and raw materials for Agrokomerc's factories. He reportedly paid Croatia's rebel Serbs for passage of his goods from his company's Zagreb warehouses to Velika Kladusa.

At one point, even French UN troops transported commercial goods into Velika Kladusa under an agreement with Abdic.

Abdic resold his wares to his people and the Serbs. He also exported some to Croatia, whose president, Franjo Tudjman, gave Abdic a duty-free zone in the northern port of Rijeka.

But Abdic's fortunes turned when Mr. Tudjman, under a US threat of sanctions, ordered his Bosnian proxies to sign a truce with Sarajevo and form the Muslim-Croat federation in February.

Tudjman now appears to be putting the squeeze on Abdic to make peace with Sarajevo, with only one Agrokomerc convoy apparently allowed to leave Croatia in the last two weeks.

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