LIKE many teenage boys, Alen Mustovic was preoccupied with cars and girls. But when he took an illegal joy ride to see an old flame in Croat-controlled western Mostar, he did not know it would cost him his life and expose a threat to the Bosnia peace plan.
Alen, a Muslim, was shot dead New Year's Day by a Bosnian Croat policeman after racing past two checkpoints on his drive back to Muslim-held eastern Mostar. It was an innocent prank gone terribly wrong. But it led to more violence in the ensuing week that left two Muslim policemen wounded, a Bosnian Croat officer dead, and ethnic tensions close to a boil.
While local leaders appear to have restored calm, the political crisis underlying the recent events remains as sharp as ever. Unless it is resolved, another isolated incident may trigger a new chain reaction that could escalate out of control, jeopardizing the tenuous Nov. 21 Bosnian peace pact brokered in Dayton, Ohio, by the United States.
"It is a very, very crucial time," warns Hans Koschnick, the German head of Mostar's temporary European Union administration.
Mr. Koschnick told the Monitor he blames the crisis on a refusal by Bosnian Croat nationalists to reunify Mostar as part of the Bosnian federation, the Muslim-Croat counterpart to the new Serbian Republic created within Bosnia by the Dayton peace accord.
Mostar is the federation's linchpin. "Without unification," Koschnick says, "there is no Mostar. Without Mostar, there is no federation. Without a federation, there is war."
Mostar was sundered in May 1993 as Bosnia's Croats turned on the Muslims, their onetime allies against the Serbs, in a bid to carve out a chunk of Bosnia to unite with Croatia. Coveting Mostar as their capital, Croat forces expelled thousands of Muslims from the west side onto the east bank of the Neretva River. Some 55,000 Muslims withstood nine months of hunger and fire that destroyed much of the Ottoman-era east bank, including the 16th century stone bridge for which Mostar was famed.
The fighting ended with a US-brokered pact that established the Muslim-Croat federation. The sides agreed that a two-year European Union (EU) administration would preside over a $200 million reconstruction program and begin reunification by creating a joint city police force and government. While rebuilding is under way, Bosnian Croat hard-liners have blocked progress on all other fronts. The Muslims confined to the east bank want to restore Mostar's multiethnic heritage; the 49,000 Croats on the west side are determined to preserve partition. They even want EU aid to build a separate airport, shopping center, and TV station.
Striding into a local TV talk show last Friday in a black uniform and giving a Nazi-style salute, the Bosnian Croat military commander of west Mostar, Mladen Misic, ruled out compromise. "I can tell my grandsons they can rest assured that this is not Bosnia. This is the Croatian state," he declared. "If there are those who don't like it, that's just tough for them."
A Western diplomat says behind Mr. Misic is Mate Boban, former head of the Bosnian wing of the Croatian Democratic Union, the party of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Mr. Tudjman removed Mr. Boban from his post after the 1994 peace pact, but made him the deputy director of INA, Croatia's state petroleum firm. Boban and his cohorts are bent on blocking reunification, the diplomat says. For them, however, time is running short.
Under the Dayton accord, the sequestration of the Muslims in east Mostar is to end Jan. 21, when there is to be full freedom of movement. It is also the date that the "government" created by Boban must be dismantled. It was in this friction-filled atmosphere that Alen took his fatal ride.
Sanel Zacinovic says Alen persuaded him and two friends to leave a New Year's party and drive to west Mostar to see an old friend. Since Dec. 1, only women and children have been allowed free passage from the east, but Muslim men of army age, such as Alen, are barred until Jan. 21.
Alen and his friends drove unhindered to the apartment just before 5 a.m., but as they headed back, a Croat police car tried to pull them over. Alen sped off.
By the Hotel Ero, the EU headquarters on the Boulevar, a Croat police officer flagged the car down. Alen ignored him. "Suddenly, there was a shot. It came in the back of the car," Salen recalls. Mortally wounded, Alen made it across a Neretva bridge before collapsing.
Instead of reporting the incident fairly, Croat media denounced Alen and his friends as "a terrorist cell." Muslim media fanned the fire by calling the shooting a "cold-blooded murder."
Four days later, gunfire from the west side severely wounded two Muslim police officers, while several grenades were thrown into empty buildings. Western officials see the acts as deliberately aimed at stirring tensions to keep the city divided and undermine the Dayton accord. On Jan. 6, gunfire from the Muslim side killed Zeljko Ljubic, a Croatian policeman.
His patience exhausted, Koschnick sought extra patrols of NATO's US-led peace Implementation Force to patrol the streets. And Robert Galluci, special adviser to President Clinton, is in Croatia seeking Tudjman's help in reuniting Mostar.
Bitterness runs high among west Mostar's Croats. Bombarded by propaganda from the Boban-controlled media, they appear determined to resist union. "There can only be two districts, ours and theirs," asserts Branko Solic, one of some 200 mourners at Mr. Ljubic's rain-soaked funeral.
But Muslims say they believe reconciliation is possible. Even someone as bitter as Alen's father, Omer Mustovic, is ready to forgive. "It does not depend on us. It depends on the Croats," he says.