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Bosnia: Thousands Of Ethnic Croats In Army Mutiny

A mutiny this week by several thousand ethnic Croats in Bosnia's federal army is the latest in a series of moves by nationalist members of Bosnia's Croat community aimed at dissolving the Muslim-Croat federation. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that authorities are playing down the move, while the international community is issuing stern warnings.

Prague, 30 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Several thousand Croats serving in the army of the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina deserted their posts this week in a public demonstration of support for Croat autonomy.

Before the mutiny, Bosnia's federal army was officially estimated at about 22,000-strong, including about 7,000 ethnic Croats. Exactly how many of the army's Croats have gone absent is unclear. According to on-scene news reports, Croat soldiers left several large barracks -- 1,900 soldiers in Vitez, more than 700 in Kiseljak, and many hundreds or possibly thousands more in Mostar, Orasje, and Odzak.

But diplomats in Bosnia (unnamed) dismiss all these figures -- including the official estimate of the army's strength -- as exaggerated. They note that brigade sizes in the army were reduced by two-thirds several months ago due to insufficient funds, and that weapons remain locked up in federal depots.

A pro-government military commander in Orasje, Colonel Martic, told RFE/RL's South Slavic Service the desertions were made under duress.

"Pressure was exerted in all sorts of ways, including attempts to draft, bribe, criticize, as well as [threats] of killing, beatings, taking soldiers off for 'discussions' and so on.

Yesterday (29 March) Bosnia's Defense Ministry announced that almost the entire Croat army command structure in the northern Posavina region (Odzak and Orasje) had expressed their loyalty to Defense Minister Mijo Anic. The ministry said that salaries would be paid today (30 March), after which it would become clear exactly how many soldiers have in fact left. As of yesterday, army barracks in Herzegovina and central Bosnia were almost entirely empty, with a small number of guards on duty.

The mutiny had been called for by the Croatian National Assembly, which earlier this month declared self-rule in Bosnia's ethnic Croat areas. The assembly is a grouping of Croat nationalist-oriented parties, led by the Croatian Democratic Community, or HDZ.

A Croatian National Assembly spokesman, Mijo Jelic, said that deserters would be paid 500 German marks (about $230) a month, 100 marks more than what soldiers in the federation army are paid.

HDZ is angered at its exclusion from the Bosnian federal government formed after general elections four months ago. The voting resulted in gains for moderate, multiethnic parties led by the Alliance for Change. HDZ earlier this year withdrew its deputies from parliament when it became clear that it would not be part of the new government. The party argues that its exclusion is a violation of Croatian rights since it won nearly a fifth of the votes in the November balloting.

The Croatian Defense Council, or HVO, had its own army during the three-and-a-half-year Bosnian war, but it subsequently merged with Muslim forces to form the Bosnian federal army. Nevertheless, the HVO is playing a key role in the mutiny.

HVO Commander Zlatan Jelic says the Croats will return to the federation's army once the current political crisis over Croat political representation is resolved. In the meantime, as an HVO statement puts it, "wearing the federal uniform when the vital interests of the Croatian people are threatened amounts to accepting the inequality that Croats suffer."

The Bosnian federal army had tried to head off the mutiny by dismissing three Croat commanders. The Defense Ministry also gave soldiers five days to sign contracts with the army confirming their loyalty to the federation.

When the mutiny began Tuesday (27 March), Federal Defense Minister Anic, a moderate Croat, denounced it as illegal. He said no one has the right to disband a people's army, least of all what he characterized as "representatives of unconstitutional and parallel bodies of authority."

On Wednesday, Anic announced the appointment of three new commanders. He also said soldiers were returning to their posts.

"In Orasje and Odzak we dealt with the insubordination as was necessary. We brought back the commanders, we brought back the army. We've taken the same measures in central Bosnia."

Anic says any soldiers who fail to return to their posts will be replaced, in his words, "just as workers who leave a company are replaced with other workers."

The international community has expressed full support for the federation's army and Defense Ministry, and is threatening intervention.

Oleg Milisic, spokesman for the international community's High Representative for Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, has warned that "any attempt to establish parallel structures is illegal and is against Dayton" -- a reference to the 1995 Bosnia peace accords. Petritsch called on all Croat members of Bosnia's armed forces to remain loyal to their legally appointed commanders and not to involve themselves in the current political situation.

Another Petritsch aide, Alexandra Stiglmayer, said in Sarajevo yesterday (29 March) that the attempted disbanding of Croat units in the federation army is a violation of the country's laws. She said that violations will be subject to an investigation, with subsequent punishment of those found responsible.

Three weeks ago, after the formation of the separatist-inclined Croatian National Assembly, Petritsch removed HDZ leader Ante Jelavic from the collective Bosnian presidency and fired three other HDZ officials from senior positions in the federal leadership.

Petritsch said the creation of a third Bosnian entity -- in addition to the existing Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska -- would effectively put Bosnia's Croats in a ghetto where, he said, they would be "poor and isolated." He accused Jelavic of being interested, in Petritsch's words, "only in the well-being and position of extreme nationalists and perhaps even criminal elements in his party."

The NATO-led Stabilization Force, or SFOR, has urged Croat members of the Bosnian army at all levels to support Defense Minister Anic. SFOR spokesman Captain Andrew Coxhead said the majority of soldiers serving in the federal army, and their commanders, are "highly professional and know where their duty lies." Coxhead warned that any form of a so-called parallel Bosnian Croat military structure is unacceptable and that SFOR will not recognize such an organization.