Tensions in Mostar Test Alliance

Muslims and Croats have reunited, but continue to fight over historic sites

THE new Roman Catholic cathedral being built by Bosnian Croats in the city of Mostar is expected to be half the size of a football field, and it is deepening antagonism between former Croat and Muslim enemies.

There has been relative peace in this divided city for two years, and a Bosnia-wide Federation between Croats and Muslims that serves as the cornerstone to the Dayton peace agreement. But the alliance is fraying quickly, Western officials say, and is in danger of collapse.

Forging ahead with the symbolic and controversial "Resurrection of Christ" basilica, a European Union official says, is a "deliberate provocation" of the Muslims by the Croats, and one of many that demonstrates how little the two groups want to live with each other.

The pit for the foundation of the cathedral is being excavated at breakneck speed, and Croats say that the church will be completed by the year 2004.

Muslims say they don't mind that the Croats are building a new cathedral in Mostar, but they and EU officials are angry it is being built in a central zone - meant for both Croats and Muslims - currently under EU administration.

Staking their claim to one of the last open spaces in the center of the city, the Croats are also planning to build a Croatian national theater and - even though Croats initiated 10 months of brutal ethnic war in 1993 to "cleanse" the city of Muslims - erect a monument to Croat "heroes" and victims of the fighting.

The Dayton peace agreement was based on the assumption that the Muslim-Croat Federation - brokered by US diplomats in 1994 - would remain intact and serve as a counterbalance to the Serb ministate in Bosnia. But tensions remain high, despite the presence of 60,000 American-led peacekeeping troops. "It's a shotgun marriage, and they want to be at arm's length," says a NATO officer in Mostar. "Our assessment is that we are seeing the unraveling of the Federation by mutual consent."

EU officials have struggled to hammer out agreements for a joint police force in Mostar, as well as freedom of movement, and even a new Federation flag. But strong diplomatic pressure has been unable to overcome the animosity. "The fighting here was so close and intense that quite a lot of heart was taken out," says the officer. Freedom of movement has proven to be a "farce," and both sides seem intent on continuing with their wartime policies of obliterating all cultural traces of their former enemy.

Croat violence boiled over last month, when EU administrator Hans Koschnick of Germany laid down his plans for the reunification of the city. Mostar would be divided into six municipalities - three each for Muslims and Croats - and a mixed central zone would be created, where federation ministries and offices would be based. The Croats wanted a tiny central zone; Muslims called for a large one.

Mr. Koschnick's compromise decision caused Croats to riot.

Despite earlier assurances that European governments would back Koschnick's plan, EU sources say, he was undermined at the Balkan summit in Rome one month ago. Muslim officials were pressured to accept a smaller central zone.

Koschnick resigned immediately, saying he had nothing to do with redrawing the map, but a precedent had been set. "We know in a month it will sour, but the Croats know that if they put thugs on the streets, we will back down," one EU official says. "Everyone now is completely demoralized."

The Croats of Bosnia - called Herzeg Bosnans - are renowned for the virulence of their nationalism. The new cathedral is a case where they have pressed ahead, despite EU complaints. "We see they are building, and there is very little we can do," says Adrian Rausche, the head of the EU housing authority. "We would like them to stop and would like them to come up with a joint central plan."

Muslims claim that the site always has been sacred Islamic land. The site was once a Muslim graveyard, but the bodies were disinterred decades ago. The Croats, on the other hand, claim a Catholic presence from the period of the Austro-Hungarian empire; the Muslims counter that it was theirs under Ottoman rule; the Croats counter yet again that a chapel existed during Roman times.

The result today is further animosity, though Croat church officials deny that they are provoking their rivals. "We look to a better future, and want people to go to the church after working at the ministries," says Luka Pavlovic, the first vicar of the Herzegovina diocese. "The Muslims have their mosque over there."

But that mosque was shelled to rubble by Croats along with the other Muslim areas of the central zone.

Both sides engage in tit-for-tat abductions when tensions are high. Last week an escorted journey by Muslims to visit graveyards in Croat territory was halted again and again. The Muslims then blocked Mostar's main road.

For Western officials, anxiety is also high over what they see as a gradual remobilizing campaign by both sides. Still, the importance of peace in Mostar, says peace force spokesman Simon Haseblock, should not be underestimated. "The success of the peace agreement depends entirely on the cohesion of the Federation. At the moment, the parties appear to be making very few substantive efforts to make it work."

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