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Mostar's Divide Deepens as Bosnian Croats Contest Election Results

  • Stephanie Baker

Prague, July 25 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union may pull its peace mission out of the divided southern city of Mostar over the refusal by Bosnian Croats to accept the results of recent municipal elections to reunify the city.

International mediator Carl Bildt told reporters in Sarajevo yesterday that the European Union (EU) could withdraw its mission from Mostar soon if Bosnian Croat representatives continue to contest the election outcome. Bosnian Muslim parties, who favor reunification of the city, narrowly won the municipal election held on June 30.

Bildt called the situation in Mostar "disturbing" and said it had "far-reaching implications" for Bosnia-wide elections, scheduled in September.

Bosnian Croat representatives two days ago boycotted the first session of the newly-elected city council, alleging voting irregularities. They say voting by refugees at one polling station in Germany should be repeated because of 26 illegal ballots cast there. Political analysts say the real reason for Croats' protest is that the refugee votes across Europe cost them their electoral victory.

Konstantinos Zepos, the EU's ombudsman, dismissed the Croats' charges as too minor for a rerun and declared the election results valid. The Croats have appealed Zepos' ruling to the Bosnian Constitutional Court, but the EU maintains it has the final word.

Bosnian Croats, who hold 16 of the council's 37 seats, say they will continue to boycott the assembly until their complaints about election irregularities are taken into account.

Despite the boycott, the council's first session was held on Tuesday with 16 Muslims and 5 Serbs. They elected an assembly president, Hamdija Jahic, who is the local leader of the Muslim-led Party of Democratic Action (SDA). But they delayed the selection of a mayor and deputy mayor for the city. Jahic was quoted as telling the assembly he hoped Bosnian Croat members would attend the council's next session.

Bosnian Muslim representatives contend that Croat hardliners have not yet given up hopes that Mostar would become the capital of an independent Bosnian Croat mini-state closely allied with Croatia proper.

Mostar, an ethnically diverse city before the war, was split into a Croatian-controlled western sector and Muslim-controlled eastern sector following bitter fighting between the two sides in 1993. The fighting ended when the United States brokered a deal in 1994 to unite Muslims and Croats in a federation that occupies roughly half of Bosnia. But distrust between Muslim and Croat leaders has persisted.

The European Union, which has administered Mostar for the past two years, has suffered numerous setbacks in its efforts to reunite and reconstruct the city. Now it is considering pulling out in face of the dilemma of continuing its mandate in a city that has no government.

"We are in a vacuum," said Dragan Grasic, the EU's spokesman in Mostar.

Grasic said the Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring, EU Council President, was consulting the EU on the situation. Western news agencies quote unnamed diplomats as saying the EU has set an August 4 deadline for the Croat representatives to cooperate, or the EU mission in Mostar will be abolished. But the report could not be confirmed.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic sent a letter to the Irish presidency of the EU this week warning that the Croat boycott of the council could, in his words, "block the whole process of democratically resolving the Mostar crisis." He said it could create a dangerous precedent for September elections throughout Bosnia.

The elections in Mostar were widely viewed as a test for Bosnia's first post-war nationwide poll to elect joint governing bodies to unify the country's Muslim, Croat and Serb populations. Political analysts say the Bosnian Croats' refusal to accept the election results in Mostar could be a harbinger of challenges come September.