AS prospects for a peace agreement in Bosnia-Herzegovina grow increasingly dim, international mediator Lord David Owen appears to be encouraging a power struggle between President Alija Izetbegovic and breakaway Muslims in the northwestern corner of the former Yugoslav republic.
International observers and European Community and United Nations sources say Lord Owen and the influential French UN peacekeeping troops deployed in the region have supported the secessionists as part of an effort to undermine Mr. Izetbegovic's authority and pressure him to sign a peace plan.
John Mills, spokesman for the international mediators, denies the charges, saying that both Lord Owen and UN mediator Thorvald Stoltenberg have ``actually been left relatively in the dark about the political situation in Bihac.''
The power struggle has been brewing for months, but came to a head last week when regional leader Fikret Abdic, citing Izetbegovic's ``rejection'' of the Geneva peace negotiations and resolve to continue the war in the face of an oncoming Balkan winter, declared the Bihac region autonomous and ordered government-led forces to come under his control.
The move instigated the first serious inter-Muslim fighting to break out since the Bosnian war began 18 months ago. At least five have died and many more have been wounded in clashes. The UN estimates that 2,500 Bosnian Army troops have defected to Abdic's side. ``We began this war to fight for a unified Bosnia,'' a boisterous Mr. Abdic says in his heavily guarded office in his northern stronghold of Velika Kladusa. ``I ask you where this unified Bosnia is now.'' UN fails to convene truce talks
Bosnian Serbs, having conquered roughly 70 percent of Bosnia by force and ``ethnic cleansing,'' have left Bosnian Muslims with about 10 percent of the land scattered in patches surrounded by hostile forces. Bosnian Croats control the rest of the territory. ``Izetbegovic wants to use this pocket to wage a war from here to eastern Bosnia and use the people of this area as meat. I will not allow it,'' Abdic says.
The UN commander in Bosnia, Gen. Francis Briquemont, failed to convene talks in the Bihac region on Wednesday as renewed fighting flared between the two sides.
Izetbegovic accused Abdic of turning his back on Bosnian national interests and the government. ``This unconstitutional act is a stab in the back of our already wounded homeland at a time when we are preoccupied with crucial decisions on our common future and under pressure from enemies from within and outside,'' he said in a radio address to area residents.
The autonomous declaration and Muslim dissent played into the hands of Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats as well as international mediators, all mounting intense pressure on President Alija Izetbegovic to sign a Geneva peace plan dividing the republic into three ethnic ministates.
The timing of the rebellion was almost uncanny, starting just days before the Bosnian parliament effectively rejected the Geneva plan by demanding ``that land taken by force be returned.'' Both Serbs and Croats have said they would make no more concessions.
Owen first exploited the frictions between Izetbegovic and Abdic by inviting the entire collective Bosnian presidency to the Geneva talks in July. The invitation was an abrupt break from the usual practice of inviting only one representative from each faction. The result was a serious weakening of Izetbegovic's position, as a feud erupted between the presidency members over the partition proposal. Izetbegovic and his vice president, Ejup Ganic, refused to go to discuss the plan, while Abdic and the other presidency members went to the talks. French transport goods into region
According to UN and international sources, Owen has used the 18,000 French troops deployed in the region to prop up Bihac economically and weaken Sarajevo's authority here.
The French troops are in Bihac ``on agreements made with Owen, because it's Owen's will to use Abdic as a sort of joker against Izetbegovic,'' says a senior UN official here.
``The French are very politically involved here. The orders are not coming from the local colonel here, but from higher up. They pushed [Abdic] to do this at this time,'' says a European envoy.
Abdic, who heads the agricultural conglomerate known as Agrokomerc, is credited with keeping the pocket relatively free from the economic strife gripping other parts of Bosnia. Unlike other regions of the republic, fruits, vegetables, and consumer goods such as gasoline and shampoo are in ample supply.
Their availability is largely due more to efforts of UN troops who openly deliver the supplies through the Serb-controlled areas in Croatia to the Bihac pocket. The Serbs reportedly get paid off for allowing the convoys.
``The taxes taken on the products help the local government to exist to pay the employers, to repair the roads, and to pay the army,'' a French officer says in the UN's defense.
The UN mandate in Bosnia provides for military escorts for the humanitarian aid convoys of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR has not requested an escort into the Bihac pocket for several months, but French troops bring in three times as much in supplies for Abdic as the UNHCR does in humanitarian aid, a UNHCR spokesman said.
Owen's special assistant has been to visit Abdic at least three times over the past six months, a UN official said.
``It's all smoke and mirrors here, smoke and mirrors,'' one international observer here says. ``Nothing is what it seems.''