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Rebel Muslims From Bihac Are War's Biggest Losers

Kuplensko, Croatia; Jan. 30 (RFE/RL) - Drive south of Zagreb to where Croatia wraps around the northwestern tip of Bosnia and you'll find the biggest losers of the Bosnian war. They are the rebel Muslims who fought against their own Muslim-led government and lost. Here in Kuplensko, Croatia, bordering Bosnia's Bihac pocket, some 9,500 followers of renegade warlord Fikret Abdic are stranded in no-man's land. They are too scared to go home, and unwanted anywhere else.

For seven kilometers on either side of the road, thin canvas tents hunker down in deep snow, punctuated at intervals by standpipes where women are washing their clothes, or gathering water to carry back to their makeshift homes. Bored men, women and children - all Abdic loyalists - wander aimlessly along the snowy road, staring with frank fascination at a rare car that ventures into what is surely the most miserable refugee camp in Europe.

Samir Vilic, a 26-year-old former soldier, voices the feeling of many here when he says: "This is not a refugee camp, this is a concentration camp."

Almost all the refugees in Kuplensko are former employees of Fikret Abdic, a 56-year-old former Communist who became a corrupt businessman, and then a warlord. Abdic was director of one of the most successful companies in former Yugoslavia, Agrokomerc, a food and agricultural products conglomerate. In the wild days during the transition from communism to capitalism, he and local Communist Party bosses embezzled millions of dollars from the company. But far from disgracing him, the resulting criminal charges made him a local hero to people who considered him a victim of persecution by Serbs in Belgrade.

In September 1993, he declared the northern half of the Bihac pocket, centered on Velika Kladusa with its population of some 50,000 Muslims, an autonomous region. He then installed himself as president. His militia, made up of Muslims who deserted from the Sarajevo government's Fifth Corps, went to war against Alija Izetbegovic's Bosnian government forces.

Throughout the war, Abdic enhanced his status as a hero among his followers in Velika Kladusa by doing business with all sides. His followers in the camp say approvingly that Abdic was engaged in smuggling with the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs, not fighting them.

On the contrary, for most of the last two years of the war, Abdic's forces helped the Serbs lay siege to the Bihac pocket. They blocked delivery of food and medical supplies and brought the mostly-Muslim population in the south of the pocket to the brink of starvation.

But by the end of the war, the Bihac pocket was liberated by the Bosnian Army Fifth Corps forces who fought their way out and linked with Croatian Army troops battling rebel Croatian Serbs.

In August last year, tens of thousands of Abdic's followers fled to Croatia in disarray and more than 20,000 landed at the makeshift Kuplensko camp. This was the second time they had fled to Croatia during the war.

Despite their miserable living conditions, the camp residents remain in surprisingly good spirits and are intensely loyal to Abdic, whom they refer to either as Fikret, or as Babo, an affectionate term meaning Grandfather. A sign painted on the side of one house reads: "For whom? For Babo!"

Zumreta Milkovic, 28, lives in a tiny improvised house barely bigger than a double bed along with her husband, five-year-old daughter and six-month-old baby. It's a difficult life, she says, "but I can manage because of our people, because of our Babo." She says she used to work for Abdic, and "I want to live where he lives."

But Abdic is not in the camp. He is said to be living in luxury somewhere on the Croatian seacoast. Officially, the Croatian government says it has no knowledge of his whereabouts because it does not want to hand him over to the Bosnian government, which wants him on war crimes charges.

Many of the men in the camp say they are also wanted on war crimes charges. One is Senad Gracanin, 31, a former military policeman who admits he frequently beat up Fifth Corps soldiers while interrogating them, but denies that this constitutes a war crime. He says he and others are afraid to return to Velika Kladusa because of retribution awaiting them. United Nations officials say it's a reasonable fear. Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for the UN police force, said last week that in recent days the UN civilian police have been receiving at least five complaints a day of intimidation and out-right violence against returning Abdic refugees.

The UN aid agency, the UNHCR, also said it has documented 20 cases during the last month of intimidation, beating of people and at least one shooting death.

That's why the Abdic people say there is nothing the Sarajevo government can offer them that would convince them to go home. They say they will hold out in no-man's land until Abdic wins republic-wide elections and replaces Izetbegovic as president of Bosnia.

Mehmed Milkovic, a 31-year-old former manager at Agrokomerc, sums up the feelings of his fellow refugees when he says: "We will stay here as long as it takes. If it takes 20 years, we will stay here 20 years."