The Seesaw Fortunes of `Babo,' a Bosnian Warlord


MUSLIM turncoat, Serb appeaser, unscrupulous tycoon. Whatever you may think of Fikret Abdic, you have to admire his survival instinct.

Over the years, he's been jailed for fraud; seen the collapse of his business empire; and, most recently, led an abortive rebellion against the Bosnian government. Yet each time, this indomitable Muslim magnate-turned-warlord has somehow recovered.

This week, ``Babo'' (Daddy in Serbo-Croatian), as he's affectionately known to his loyal followers, is poised for perhaps his biggest comeback.

With the help of his Croatian and Bosnian Serb patrons, Mr. Abdic is set to recapture Velika Kladusa - his former stronghold north of the Bihac enclave, from which he was ousted three months ago after leading a year-long revolt.

For both the Bosnian Serbs and their Croatian counterparts, Abdic is the key to subduing the enclave. Both want to rout the Bosnian Army Fifth Corps, demilitarize the pocket, and install him as its ruler.

``We trust Fikret. He's a Muslim we can do business with,'' said one Krajina Serb officer. ``With him in charge we can forget about Bihac.''

Abdic as businessman

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 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.

But, it seems, the latter-day Muslim baron will not be satisfied with merely retrieving his fiefdom. With the humiliation of his defeat at the hands of the Bosnian Army Fifth Corps still rankling, Abdic is in a vengeful mood. His troops, who until recently languished in squalid refugee camps in the Serb-held Krajina region of Croatia, are equally determined to hit back at their foes.

Rebel forces, supported by Krajina Serb infantry and artillery, have advanced well beyond the ``Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia'' - the mini-state Abdic proclaimed in 1992, after falling out with Mr. Izetbegovic.

Abdic loyalists claim to have reached the fringes of Bihac town in the south, in a coordinated pincer movement with the Bosnian Serbs - leaving the United Nations safe area practically encircled.

At the height of his rebellion, Abdic struck peace deals with the Serbs and the Croats, in a bid to revive his flagging business fortunes. Former foes quickly became trading partners and Abdic's Agromkomerc business again began to prosper.

Abdic as warlord

But his rebellion ended this summer when the Fifth Corps marched into Kladusa, sending Abdic and thousands of his flock scurrying into neighboring Croatian Serb-held territory.

Abdic set up shop in Vojnic, a Serb garrison close to Kladusa, where he plotted revenge. When the Bosnian Serbs launched their counteroffensive two weeks ago, Abdic mobilized his army.

Rearmed by their allies, some 10,000 Muslim rebels together with Croatian Serb troops entered the pocket and began driving back the government forces. Abdic's soldiers appear to be in the thick of the action, with the Serbs mostly providing covering fire.

At Petrovo Selo, a sleepy Croatian Serb village just a few miles west of Bihac town, Serbian officers peer toward distant hills dotted with minarets where fierce-sounding battles rage between, they claim, rebel and government forces.

On the heights above Petrovo Selo, two soldiers clasping walkie-talkies stand by their command car, apparently forward observers for Serb missile batteries whose deafening bursts intermittently punctuate the rattle of mortars and machine-gun fire in the distance.

To the north, along a meandering road between Vojnic and the margin of the enclave, the Serbs flaunt their fire power. Scores of tanks and artillery pieces line the roadside, seemingly ready to move off at a moment's notice.

As the Croatian Serbs mass on the Bihac border in support of Abdic's troops, he holds triumphant press conferences. He's reinstalled himself in a Turkish fortress overlooking the town. Once his sanctuary in the dark days of the Fifth Corps advance, he now paces its ramparts bellowing orders to his lieutenants.

At his headquarters, on the outskirts of Kladusa, Abdic's deputy military commander entertains visiting Serb liaison officers, boasts of recent battlefield successes, and decries NATO intervention to the clear delight of his guests.

Sitting beneath a poster of a grinning Abdic, the Muslim commander declared: ``Everything NATO is doing now is counterproductive. It should stop its attacks. The only option that will guarantee peace is our victory.''

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