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Croatia: Making Another Bid For Bosnian Territory

Prague, 31 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Croatia appears to be seeking a way of annexing six Bosnian villages near the northwestern border town of Bihac and the town's airport. The move would affect Bosnia's territorial integrity.

The six villages are all on the slope of Mount Pljesevica that towers over Bihac and straddles Bosnia's border with Croatia. The majority of their inhabitants are ethnic Croats.

A Sarajevo newspaper, the "Dnevni Avaz," reported last week that the Croatian media have recently revived the issue of revising Croatia's borders at the expense of Bosnia-Herzegovina's territory. The paper noted that the Croatian weekly "Panorama" had in a recent issue reported that the inhabitants of the six villages had shown a desire to join Croatia. The villages were said to have based their claim on an old land registry map from 1909 that shows the villages located on the territory of today's Republic of Croatia.

Croatia's independent weekly, the Split-based "Feral Tribune" has asked whether Croatia really wants just the Bihac airport, or the Croat-inhabited villages of Zavalje, Veliki Skocaj, Mali Skocaj, Medjudrazje, Veliki Baljevac, and Mali Baljevac, or everything?

The "Feral Tribune" suggests that the issue dates back to the settlement of a 1946 dispute between "the then-forestry authorities and a wood processing plant involving Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina."

The "Dnevni Avaz" warns that it seems almost forgotten that "the last war in former Yugoslavia, which erupted first in Slovenia, then in Croatia, and later in Bosnia-Herzegovina, broke out precisely because of territorial and other disputes, and aspirations toward the territories of these states."

The daily concludes that the experience of the ward makes it "crystal clear that Bosnia will persist in establishing its state borders... The sooner its neighbors realize this, the sooner its borders will be established."

For the moment, a temporary solution seems to have been found. Croatia's Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Simonovic and the Bosnian Ambassador in Zagreb, Kasim Trnka, this week signed an accord on the temporary demarcation of Bihac airport.

But the Croatian news agency HINA says that the two sides still differ over the temporary demarcation line. A Joint State Commission for Croatian and Bosnian borders is due to resolve the remaining differences.

This is not the first time since the break-up of Yugoslavia five years ago that Croatia has sought to annex Bosnian territory. For example, the Croatian authorities have repeatedly said that Croatia will never give up the ethnically Croat Bosnian resort of Neum on the Adriatic highway linking the Croatian port cities of Split and Dubrovnik. Neum is Bosnia's only town on the Adriatic coast.

Indeed, Neum as well as the Bosnian federation cantons of Tomislavgrad, West Herzegovina and Posavina, Neretva and Lasva-Vrbas cantons which are wholly or partially administered by ethnic Croats appear as physical extensions of the Republic of Croatia. Throughout these areas the Croatian monetary unit, the Kuna, is in circulation, the checkerboard Croatian flags are omnipresent and most residents are bearers of Croatian passports having been granted Croatian citizenship.

This situation presents a major challenge to the Dayton Agreement which foresees the reintegration of Bosnia-Herzegovina rather than its further disintegration.

But in an oft-forgotten comment U.S. presidential envoy Richard Holbrooke said after the general elections in answer to a question from a Czech reporter that Czechoslovakia's "velvet divorce" of four years ago could serve as a model should the peoples of Bosnia agree to go their own separate ways. The so-called "velvet divorce" dissolved Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia through speedy and amicable negotiations rather than by force

Meanwhile, Bosnian Croat authorities in Tomislavgrad canton just south of Bihac are continuing to destroy abandoned homes of Bosnian Serbs. This appears to have two goals: to deter former Serb residents from returning and to consolidate Croatian rule in the area.

The Drvar district at the northern end of the canton, was over 90 percent ethnically Serb until last year, but today is almost devoid of Serbs. Ethnic Croat refugees from Serb and Muslim administered areas of northern and central Bosnia currently make up the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants. Several hundred Drvar Serbs recently made an unsuccessful attempt to return to their hometown in a convoy of busses for a brief visit but were turned back by Bosnian Croat forces.

The Banja Luka-based spokesman for the U.N. International Police Task Force, Alun Roberts, says 43 Serb houses have recently been torched in the Drvar area.