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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Tensions Remain High After Croat Riots

Tensions remained high in Croat communities across Bosnia-Herzegovina today in the wake of riots Friday (6 April) triggered by the occupation of a Bosnian-Croat bank by the international community's High Representative for Bosnia. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele has the details.

Prague, 9 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Three days after violent attacks across Bosnia-Herzegovina by ethnic Croats against the international community's representatives, life still has not returned to normal.

About 3,000 Bosnian Croats rallied in the central town of Busovaca today in support of Croat autonomy in Bosnia and to protest the international community's forcible occupation 6 April of a Bosnian Croat bank suspected of financing a separatist campaign.

In the Croatian port of Split, some 100 war veterans from Croatia and the Croatian community in Bosnia protested against international attempts to prevent Croat self-rule in Bosnia at a supply base for Bosnia's NATO-led Stabilization Force, or SFOR.

The demonstrators denounced the international community's High Representative in Bosnia, Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, who had ordered the takeover of the Croat-controlled Hercegovacka Bank.

Hercegovacka employees today milled about in front of the bank's headquarters in Mostar, waiting for the newly appointed provisional administrator, Toby Robinson, to explain when they would be allowed to go back to work.

SFOR continues to deploy armored personnel carriers in front of branch offices of the High Representative and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Mostar and other towns.

During a mass today in Sarajevo's cathedral, Roman Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic called on both the international community and Bosnian Croat political leaders to be reasonable. In Cardinal Puljic's words: "We want to live with others, don't humiliate us any longer, don't trample on us, don't build peace with arms. Build peace through accord [and] dialogue."

The cardinal said Bosnian Croats should not be collectively "branded and imprisoned" because of individuals' guilt. But he called on Bosnian Croat leaders to "stop this hatred you are spreading among the people" and urged them to negotiate.

Last Thursday (5 April), Petritsch ordered that a provisional administration be established the next day over Hercegovacka Bank due to concern over what he termed "continued corruption that hinders economic reform, is a threat to democratic governance, and wastes public resources."

Petritsch said he was "deeply concerned" by the opaque ownership and operations of Hercegovacka Bank. He noted that the Bosnian Croat military force, the Croat Defense Council -- or HVO -- had some 50 accounts at the bank. He said that records showed HVO made large deposits into these accounts but failed to reveal where the funds are now or how they have been disbursed.

Late last month, in a separatist move, the HVO withdrew its soldiers from the Bosnian Federation army,

Petritsch appointed a provisional bank administrator whom, he said, was "essential to the interest of public confidence and the credibility of the banking system in Bosnia." Peacekeepers and teams of auditors -- some wearing black hoods over their heads to protect their identity -- forcibly took control of the bank's offices the following morning.

Stone-throwing mobs responded by staging riots near Hercegovacka Bank offices in Mostar, Grude, and other towns. They attacked SFOR patrols, injuring more than 20 peacekeepers as well as a number of Bosnian federation and international civilian officials. They held some of the officials as hostages for several hours.

Petritsch said neither he nor SFOR commander U.S. General Michael Dodson would tolerate "mob rule." After the hostages were released Saturday (7 April), he told reporters in Sarajevo that "the mobs were clearly organized [and] must face the full weight of the law."

A UN official in Sarajevo, Douglas Coffman, says some Croat police failed to do anything to stop the riot. He said: "Some of the police were part of the problem."

After the riots, Bosnian Minister for Human Rights Kresimir Zubak, a Croat, tried to explain to local reporters why the international community had seized control of Hercegovacka Bank. He said that the bank was not only linked to the Bosnian Croat army, but was also connected to the Bosnian Croat intelligence service and the main Croat political party in Bosnia, the Croatian Democratic Community or HDZ.

The HDZ advocates the creation of a "third [Bosnian] entity" through Croat secession from the Muslim-Croat federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is one of the two entities that constitute the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The other entity is Republika Srpska. Zubak said:

"The Hercegovacka Bank is fully under the control of HDZ, or, to be more specific, the hard line of HDZ. What they have recently been providing is a service for the things they did in the financial field. It is indicative that Hercegovacka Bank and the national security service were [operating] under the same roof in Orasje and some other towns."

But the leader of HDZ in Bosnia, Ante Jelavic, said the international officials should not have used force to enter the bank Friday. He denied his party had anything to do with the unrest. Jelavic told a gathering on Saturday that "new sanctions, suspensions, removals and scare tactics" would only strengthen Bosnian Croat resolve for self-rule.

Another HDZ activist, Marko Tokic, accused the international community of resorting to violence. He called the bank seizure "armed robbery."

"We experienced an armed robbery, or an attempted armed robbery, in broad daylight. But I have to say that unfortunately the High Representative bears responsibility for the attacks on private property."

In neighboring Croatia, however, President Stipe Mesic expressed understanding for the international community's seizure of the bank. Mesic left HDZ seven years ago after a falling out with HDZ chairman and Croatia's first president, Franjo Tudjman.

"When one sees the lack of transparency in the [bank's] financial channels, it is clear that it had to go this way. In this case, when it was a matter of entering the banks and examining its documents, one doesn't have to respond by taking to the streets. The streets didn't [really] respond. Rather, it was those who are afraid that light will be shed on who is handling all the money and how."

Still tensions remain high. HDZ today denounced U.S. Ambassador Thomas Miller for "expressing hatred toward the Bosnian HDZ and the Croat nation." Over the weekend, Miller had given several interviews in which he allegedly referred to Friday's rioters as "barbarians, criminals, mafiosi, bands, rabble and violent groups."

In one radio interview, Ambassador Miller accused HDZ of being "a party that uses political power to cover its criminal activities, which are extensive." He said: "It's all about money. All you have to do is drive around Herzegovina [where most of the ethnic Croats live], see the companies that these people own, the houses they live in, the cars they are driving, and ask yourself a simple question: Where did it all come from? That's what it is all about."