IN the end, Bosnian Army Fifth Corps Commander Atif Dudakovic and his troops are having the last laugh.
Combining disinformation and a pyrotechnic show rivaling a Hollywood spectacle, they seem to have pulled off the biggest deception of the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In doing so, they not only bilked their foes out of truckloads of badly needed weaponry, but fooled the world, proving again that old maxim of the truth being the first casualty of war.
It had appeared that Sarajevo faced a major calamity in the Fifth Corps stronghold of Bihac, the main town of Cazinska Krajina, a northwestern Muslim enclave sandwiched between Bosnian Serb-held land and minority rebel Serb-controlled areas of Croatia.
In addition to the Bosnian Serbs, the Fifth Corps has been fighting fellow Muslims loyal to Fikret Abdic, a former member of the Bosnian presidency who last fall declared the enclave autonomous and signed peace and trade deals with the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs.
While Bihac had been frequently pounded from nearby Bosnian Serb territory, it remained unscathed by the inter-Muslim battles. Or so it seemed until last Thursday, when gunfire and explosions suddenly erupted across the town and smoke roiled above rooftops.
French United Nations troops, European Union (EU) monitors, and foreign aid workers, confined to their bases by Mr. Dudakovic's men, ostensibly for their protection, surmised a pro-Abdic mutiny had erupted.
They passed on their observations to the international press, which dutifully reported carnage in the streets of Bihac.
Some journalists also picked up reports of Dudakovic's capture and Bihac's pending fall by Radio Velkaton in Mr. Abdic's stronghold of Velika Kladusa and by Serbian and Croatian media.
But after the shooting ended on Saturday, UN and EU officials speculated that perhaps things were not as they had seemed. ``Everything that happened over the last three days was simulated by members of the Fifth Corps,'' Dudakovic said on Sunday.
Speaking by radio telephone from Bihac, Dudakovic told a Zagreb news conference that the ``uprising'' was staged to trick Abdic into sending arms to those he believed were his mutineers.
The Fifth Corps reaped a bonanza of weaponry for its own badly depleted stockpiles, he said. ``We received about 1,200 guns, machine guns, and sniper rifles, over 200,000 bullets, one mortar, telecommunications equipment, food, and fuel.''
Additional rewards were documents that will be used to prosecute Abdic for being in league with the Croatian Serbs, he said.
According to Dudakovic, the scheme actually began in February when several Fifth Corps double agents made contact with Abdic, and over the following months convinced him they were ready to overthrow Bihac's pro-Sarajevo leaders.
The mutiny was set for last Thursday, and senior Abdic operatives established a command center in a Croatian Serb military base in Licko Petrovo Selo on the Bosnia-Croatia border, Dudakovic said.
Dudakovic launched ``Operation Tiger-Freedom'' early last Thursday by confining Bihac's French UN battalion, EU monitors, and foreign-aid workers to their quarters.
Fifth Corps troops wearing the insignia of Abdic's so-called ``Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia'' then sealed off the town and launched mock attacks against key buildings using blank and live ammunition, Dudakovic said. ``At the entries to Bihac, we set old tires on fire so that from the surrounding hills, where the Serbs were watching, it appeared there was fighting in Bihac,'' Dudakovic said. ``We set off old shells and explosives.''
Mock battles were also staged at Izacic, a village near the Bosnian-Croatian border and the headquarters of the ``mutineers,'' who were in radio contact with Abdic's men in Licko Petrovo Selo. ``We sent [Abdic's men] a report that the mutiny had been successful in some parts of Bihac, but the Army barracks and some important buildings had not been taken,'' Dudakovic said.
Abdic's men were told that the mutiny was spreading, and that even some of Dudakovic's staff were defecting, but that the rebels ``needed as much ammunition and equipment as possible.''
Abdic's operatives responded by dispatching truckloads of brand new arms provided by the Croatian Serbs, the vehicles crossing unhindered into Bosnia through a border zone ostensibly under the control of Polish UN peacekeepers, Dudakovic said.
The arms were accompanied by Abdic's three men and the Croatian Serb intelligence officer with orders to take command of the revolt. The four were captured and killed, Dudakovic said.
The operation, he said, ended at 6 p.m. Saturday. ``We managed to trick all international organizations and institutions in the field. We have challenged how people report on this area and betrayed the world's leading media houses,'' Dudakovic told the news conference.
Claiming that all of Bihac was in on the ruse, he asserted that ``Everybody played his role and everybody did his duty. Our victory was a moral victory for these people. These people proved they are with the Fifth Corps, with their Army.''
There was no immediate comment from UN or EU officials, except that they were again free to move and the streets of Bihac were back to normal.