Bosnian Muslims Face Fight with Supposed Allies: Croats; Three-Way Division of Ex-Yugoslav Republic Is Feared

The Washington Post
October 29, 1992

MOSTAR, Bosnia – The Bosnian government’s Muslim troops in this city are being held quasi-captive — not by their declared enemies, the Serbs, but by their erstwhile allies, the Croat militia.

Croat forces last week effectively imposed martial law in this historic city of southern Bosnia, enforcing roadblocks and a 6 p.m. curfew. They bar Muslim soldiers from carrying weapons outdoors or leaving the city.

“Even I cannot get permission to leave the city,” said Gen. Arif Pasalic, the government defense forces’ commander here. “It’s like a Croatian coup against the Bosnian army.”

The isolation of Pasalic and his outnumbered troops is a result of a new division of Bosnia that is well underway. As ethnic Serbs consolidate their hold on much of northern and western Bosnia, having pushed out Croats and Muslims, Croats are asserting increased control over portions of the remainder, rather than accepting the authority of the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo.

Many observers have said recently that the isolated Muslims have little choice but to agree to a dismemberment of Bosnia and accept whatever shreds of it the Croats and Serbs give them.

“The Croats are trying to fulfill their territorial goals,” Pasalic said. “The only places that will belong to the Muslims are the ones that the Croats don’t want.”

Four days ago, forces of the Croatian Defense Council, the main Croat militia, seized the central Bosnian town of Prozor after having pounded their onetime Muslim allies with mortar and howitzer fire. During the battle, a helmeted Croat soldier, taking a cigarette break, was asked what had happened to the Muslim alliance. “It was an illusion,” he replied, laughing.

Sarajevo radio has reported that the Croats expelled 3,000 Muslims from Prozor. Journalists who visited Prozor on Tuesday saw a shattered city where a horse carcass litters the main street — and where there are no longer any Muslims. If the radio reports are true, Prozor may be the first case of Croats engaging in “ethnic cleansing” against Muslims.

The Croatian Defense Council, known by its initials as the HVO, is an ultra-nationalist militia with close links to the Croatian government in Zagreb, which is believed to supply it money, weapons and even soldiers. The HVO’s politics verge on fascist: many HVO soldiers wear the “U” symbol that represents Croatia’s brutal Nazi-era government, called Ustashi. The HVO’s spiritual hero is the long-deceased leader of the Ustashi state, Ante Pavelic, whose portrait adorns HVO offices.

When the war began, the Croatian HVO formed an alliance with the Bosnian army that was aimed at stopping Serbs from conquering the former Yugoslav republic. But months ago, the HVO set up a proto-state called Herceg-Bosna in southern Bosnia, where Croats predominate. Now, the HVO is seizing control from Muslims in central Bosnia.

The offensive has been criticized by the embattled Bosnian government, with one top official saying troops are being “attacked from both {Serb and Croat} sides.” While foreign governments and organizations have monitored and criticized the Serbs’ offensives in Bosnia, little attention has been paid to the Croats’ acts.

Mate Boban, the Croat leader in Bosnia, has said his forces are defending themselves against attacks from the Bosnian army. He also said in an interview that the HVO, rather than Bosnia’s government, has the right to control towns like Mostar because government forces did a poor job on the battlefield. “We’re more legal than they are because we defended Bosnia-Hercegovina and they didn’t,” he said.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.